WASHINGTON – House Republicans say they are willing to stop funding — at least temporarily — pet projects for their home districts if Democrats are willing to go along.
The move announced Friday night at a House GOP retreat in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., fell short of a drive by party conservatives who wanted a unilateral one-year moratorium on GOP "earmarks." If Democrats don't accept the challenge, as seems likely, party members could go ahead and obtain earmarks, subject to a few modest reforms.
The proposed moratorium would give time for reforms to be devised to supplement recent rules requiring lawmakers who obtain earmarks and the entities receiving the money to be identified.
"House Republicans believe that the earmark system should be brought to an immediate halt, and a bipartisan select committee should immediately be established for the purpose of identifying ways to bring fundamental change to the way in which Washington spends taxpayers' money," House GOP leaders said in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Republicans had a spirited discussion of the matter for more than two hours at The Greenbrier resort. The refusal to go ahead on their own with a voluntary GOP moratorium on earmarks reflected sufficient rank-and-file opposition to the idea to block it. Some Republicans see it as folly to give up earmarks while House Democrats and senators in both parties could still go ahead.
The party is seeking to regain credibility with voters on the issue. The practice of earmarking, or seeking hometown projects like park improvements, economic development grants, rural health centers and many other goodies for lawmakers' constituents, exploded under the GOP's control of Congress.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and ex-Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, saw earmarks as a way to try to help endangered Republicans keep their seats and to reward rank and file lawmakers willing to toe the leadership line. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who became minority leader last year, does not ask for earmarks.
Egregious examples of overreaching, such as a proposed $200 million-plus "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska and an indoor rain forest in Iowa, outraged many voters, especially conservatives that make up the base of the GOP.
If Democrats don't accept the moratorium offer, GOP leaders will still impose a new set of modest reforms on fellow Republicans seeking earmarks. Among the steps, lawmakers would not be able to name projects after themselves, a rare practice anyway, and could no longer "airdrop" pet projects into House-Senate conference reports, where they would be invulnerable to attempts to remove them.
Whatever the House does won't affect the Senate, where earmarking is seen as a birthright, and where senior Appropriations Committee Republicans such as Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Ted Stevens of Alaska are the most enthusiastic purveyors of the trade.
For their part, Democrats cite recent reforms adding more transparency to the earmarking process and point out that earmarks are down more than 40 percent from the last budget passed by Republicans. They represent just a small fraction of the overall budget.
Still, the massive spending bill passed by Congress in December had nearly 9,800 earmarks at a total cost of more than $10 billion.
President Bush has asked White House Budget Director Jim Nussle to examine ways to cut down on earmarks, and some lawmakers think he will refuse to carry out some of the earmarks in the omnibus appropriations bill. That would be legal but would go against long-standing practice in which Congress puts earmarks in accompanying reports instead of the actual legislation.