WASHINGTON – House Republicans narrowly voted Wednesday to allow their members to seek earmarks under certain conditions, making a clean break from a decade-long ban against seeking money for specific projects back home.
The 102-84 vote changes the party's internal rules and allows Republicans to join the Democratic House majority as it puts in place a new process for earmarks in spending and transportation bills. Republicans were faced with a decision of whether to participate in earmarking, a practice they had railed against in the past, or potentially see their districts disadvantaged when it came to federal spending.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said some Republicans were concerned about letting President Joe Biden's administration decide where federal dollars would go for transportation and elsewhere.
“I think members here know what’s most important about what’s going on in their district, not Biden,” McCarthy said.
In line with the rules established by Democrats, the policy change approved by Republicans specifies that no member shall ask for an earmark unless it is publicly disclosed when it is made. Each request must include a written justification for why the project is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. And the lawmaker and their immediately family cannot have a financial interest in the request.
The return of earmarking could have enormous implications for the allocation of spending across the country, making it easier for Democrats to pass annual bills funding the government. It could also help President Joe Biden, who is gearing up for a massive infrastructure push that he hopes will attract significant Republican support. With earmarking in place, bipartisanship could prove easier to achieve.
But the practice also carries risk for both sides. Earmarking was linked to corruption in the 2000s, leading to an outcry and their banishment in both the House and Senate.
“My predecessor was Speaker (John) Boehner. I think he was wise to end them," said Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio. “He saw the abuses that were taking place with them."
Many in Congress say the ban has gone too far, ceding the “power of the purse” to party leaders and the executive branch while giving lawmakers less incentive to work with members of the other party on major legislation. That frustration spurred Democratic appropriators to revive earmarking, announcing they will accept public requests for “community project funding” in federal spending bills.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said she was pleased that members of both parties recognize that the targeted funding "will help our communities, particularly now as the pandemic has exposed so many needs.”
She said the appropriations bills for the coming fiscal year would put members’ “first-hand knowledge of their districts to work on behalf of the people we represent.”
While the policy change could also enhance efforts to reach agreement on major legislation such as an infrastructure bill, other factors, such as how to pay for it, could play a much bigger role. But Republican lawmakers acknowledge that earmarks could change their calculus on some legislation.
“It's true, you're less likely to vote against the bill if you're got some things in it that are important to you," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
Still, Simpson expected the decision won't sit well with some conservative groups.
“We're going to get the heck beat out of us by right-wing media and television, and that kind of stuff," Simpson said.
Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., said that even if Republicans and Democrats start requesting earmarks for local projects in future bills, he will not participate.
“I don't think this puts us at a disadvantage because they didn't send me here to bring pork home," Budd said. “They sent me here to be an effective representative of the state, and people are tired of the overspending."