Few words in the congressional vocabulary are as profane as “earmark.”
Capitol Hill leaders essentially scrubbed earmarks from the congressional experience a few years ago. They toppled the earmarking process like statues of Communist dictators in Eastern Europe, circa 1989.
Earmarks were dispatched to the dustbin of history.
The problem is that congressional “earmarks” epitomized what the public viewed was wrong with Washington. So the House and Senate -- along with President Barack Obama -- ditched them.
But the earmarks could soon rise from the dead.
Fox has learned that House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, under the direction of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., plans to conduct hearings evaluating the merits and demerits of restoring some forms of earmarks.
Republicans nearly reinstated earmarks in the fall of 2016 before Ryan singlehandedly spiked the effort.
In mid-November 2016, House GOPers huddled in the ornate House Ways and Means Committee hearing room, in the Longworth Office Building, across the street from the Capitol. They plotted new internal rules for the 115th Congress that would start in January, 2017.
GOP Reps. Tom Rooney, Florida, and John Culberson, Texas, each crafted proposals to resuscitate limited forms of earmarks. The House Republican Conference was moments away from voting on the Rooney-Culberson plans.
Then Ryan interceded.
The speaker reminded his colleagues they were just days removed from a “drain the swamp” election. It was bad optics to immediately return to the old way of doing business, though earmarking was an accepted practice under Democrats and Republicans more than a decade ago.
Ryan promised his colleagues he’d address the earmark question in the first quarter of 2017.
Well, that didn’t happen.
Last year was wild. House Republicans incinerated the first quarter trying to pass a bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare. The GOP brass finally yanked the initial plan off the floor in late March, only to pass an altered version in mid-May. But the endeavor died in the Senate.
Then it was on to tax reform. That’s to say nothing of the political vortex that churned all year on Capitol Hill. Special elections. Administration scandals. Russia. North Korea. Sexual harassment. Government funding. General pandemonium.
There are only so many hours in the day. The earmark issue never again gurgled to the surface.
Earmarks are funny topic on Capitol Hill. When Ryan claimed the speakership in October 2015, he argued that Congress should reassert legislative authorities as prescribed under Article I of the Constitution.
That includes spending power. Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution declares “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” That’s why House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said at that time, “You’re going to see a very refreshing movement to get that power (of the purse) back to the people.”
First, let’s consider what defines an earmark:
House Rule XXI defines earmarks as “a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Senator providing, authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or Congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula driven or competitive award process.”
In other words, specific money designated for a specific project at a specific place by a specific lawmaker.
But here’s where it gets tricky.
Earmarks pale in comparison when it comes to actual federal spending. Some earmarks in 2007 cost as little as tens of thousands of dollars. That’s nothing when compared to trillions spent on federal entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
The public loves to have federal money go toward projects in their home states and districts. Money for museums. Bridges. Roadways. Dams. Locks. Levies. Research centers at universities. New equipment for police departments. But you’re liable to get an earful if you ask voters if they like earmarks.
Voters turned against lawmakers and earmarks from 2005 to 2008. They didn’t like how House GOP leaders often larded up legislation with earmarks to persuade reluctant lawmakers to support bills they otherwise opposed.
So-called “good government” groups interpreted those efforts as bribes. Scandals erupted about the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska. “Coconut Road” in Florida. There were questions about then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., buying land near his farm in Illinois -- followed by $207 million in earmarks to extend a highway close to Hastert’s land.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., lit up then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., for an earmark to help construct a museum near Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York to commemorate Woodstock.
“I’m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event,” McCain said.
Authorities probed influence peddling involving numerous lawmakers. Several former lawmakers were put on trial or did jail time. Democrats focused their campaign efforts on what voters interpreted as a “culture of corruption” in Washington.
But veteran members of both parties argue there is merit in limited earmarks. The 2016 plan from Culberson would allow earmarks for federal, state and local governments and would originate in subcommittees.
Crafting earmarks at the subcommittee level would grant them proper vetting by members and staff as a bill moves to the floor. Earmarks wouldn’t just appear magically at the end as an afterthought -- and perhaps an effort to coax a lawmaker to vote yes on a bill they otherwise opposed. Rooney’s 2016 effort would allow earmarks for Army Corps of Engineers projects.
It’s easy for the public to lampoon earmarks like the $500,000 National Science Foundation study on crustacean mobility. It involved putting shrimp on treadmills. The same with money for a teapot museum in North Carolina.
But here’s the conundrum in the upcoming earmark debate: what some constituents and lawmakers view as crucial is seen by others as a boondoggle.
The Constitution clearly asserts it’s up to Congress to direct federal spending. That lack of focus means unnamed federal bureaucrats at agencies decide how to spend taxpayer dollars instead of elected representatives.
Ask voters if they want invisible bureaucrats calling the shots -- or their members of Congress.
It’s unclear if lawmakers will get anywhere with earmarks this time or forge a consensus on bringing them back. The “drain the swamp” mantra still resonates. That phrase rhymes with the Democrats’ 2006 “culture of corruption” slogan. And that’s why “earmark” could remain a dirty word in Washington.