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Why this Texas Republican wants to bring earmarks back to Washington

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Washington, November 22, 2016 | comments
On the heels of the GOP taking back the White House and maintaining control of Congress, a proposal from a Texas lawmaker to bring back earmarks threatens to divide House Republicans and their typical allies.

Houston Rep. John Culberson’s bid to overturn the 2011 moratorium on congressionally directed spending hit the skids just before lawmakers left Washington on recess last week, when Speaker Paul Ryan halted a closed-door vote on the measure.

"We just had a 'drain the swamp' election," Ryan reportedly told the Republican House members, according to Fox News. It would be unwise to bring earmarks back just weeks later, he said, postponing the discussion until the first quarter of 2017.

That was welcome news to conservative groups, including FreedomWorks and the Heritage Foundation, which have led the opposition. They slam the idea as politically toxic, symbolic of the type of pork-barrel corruption and cronyism that voters condemned with Donald Trump’s election.

An earmark — generally described as a line-item request by a lawmaker for federal funds to be directed to a specific entity, project or beneficiary — were first curtailed in the mid-2000s and then banned under former Speaker John Boehner.

“It’s incomprehensible that House Republicans, a week after voters sent a strong message to the Washington political establishment, would bring back earmarks — the currency of corruption,” said Adam Brandon, head of the conservative super PAC FreedomWorks.

Culberson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, is proposing the rule change on earmarks with Republican Reps. Tom Rooney of Florida and Mike Rogers of Alabama. He’s aware of the politically dicey nature of congressionally directed spending but believes his measure is misunderstood.

“They’re not earmarks,” he told a reporter, reaching for his pocket-size copy of the Constitution. Pointing to Article 1, Sec. 9, he recited: "No money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law."

The Texan isn't trying to restore an era of spending on frivolous pet projects, he said. According to a copy of the amendment obtained by The Dallas Morning News, the Culberson measure would allow lawmakers to direct money only to federal agencies and state and local governments.

The request must be made at the committee level and would prohibit the use of those funds for recreational facilities. And the sponsoring lawmaker must be identified and cannot increase total spending for the fiscal year.

Culberson said the moratorium had the unintended effect of shifting power from the legislative branch to the executive branch. In other words, "unelected bureaucrats" get to decide which projects receive federal funds, he said. 

Culberson has described frustration with efforts to hire additional law enforcement to secure the Texas-Mexico border, or to pursue money for Port of Houston dredging, because doing so would violate the earmark ban. 

His proposal gained traction earlier this year, long before Trump’s victory. But for many it brings back memories of earmark abuse under former lawmakers, such as Rep. Duke Cunningham, a California Republican who went to prison for taking bribes in exchange for earmarks.

“The people who abused this privilege lost it for the Congress as a whole,” said Culberson, a member of the tea party caucus. “We’ve developed a process that ensures that the congressionally directed spending will be open and transparent, that we will be held accountable for it.”

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a national independent budget watchdog group, isn’t convinced.

“They may try to come up with different names for it, but an earmark is an earmark,” he said.

Culberson’s measure doesn’t achieve what his group has long advocated, he said — for Congress to develop criteria and metrics for allocating funds in a competitive process, then hold the government accountable for how the money is spent.

Jim Capretta, a resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative public policy group, said the earmark ban has contributed to Washington paralysis.

“The strongest power that leaders always had over rank-and-file members was willingness to listen to and adopt earmark requests in big major bills,” he said.

Without those bargaining chips, individual lawmakers have less reason to support major initiatives. Still, Capretta said, “I’m not saying it’s a good reason to restore it.”

House Republicans are expected to resume talks on the proposal early next year, when a task force will convene to vet the amendment. Members of the Texas GOP delegation, who typically vote in tandem, are split on the issue so far.

Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, said regardless of how the House Republican Conference votes, he won't use earmarks. And Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Heath, called the potential return of earmarks a “huge mistake.”

The ban wasn’t in place when Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, was elected, but he said he sees some value in their use.

“The lack of the ability for an individual congressman to try to help his own district in specific ways puts us at a great disadvantage,” he said, echoing Culberson’s concerns that Congress ceded too much power to the executive branch with the ban. “It’s important to return some of that constitutional authority back to the U.S. Congress.”

Dallas Rep. Pete Sessions, chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, and Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, have also indicated support for overturning the ban, with certain restrictions in place.

“A lot of the perception when I wasn’t up here about earmarks was that it’s like the bridge to nowhere,” Williams said, referring to the $223 million earmark to build a bridge between two remote islands in Alaska, a project that became a symbol of fury over earmarks. “But I think there’s opportunities to help get projects done.”

Trump, Williams noted, has made addressing the nation’s aging infrastructure a key priority in his administration. “So let’s see what we come out with. Maybe it’s not earmarks, maybe it’s something else that the public will be happy with and we can improve our assets here in the country.”

Come January, with Republicans running the scoreboard, Capretta said he doesn’t expect the ban to be overturned. 

“They’ll all come to the realization: Why open this can of worms, especially when you’re supposed to be draining the swamp?”

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