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Will Earmarks Make a Comeback?

After over 10 years, years, it appears Congress may be considering a return to earmarks, which previously allowed Members to secure funding from congressional appropriations for certain important projects.  They were eliminated in 2011 due to scandals.  On February 26 House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) announced a plan that would allow the House to accept earmarks (formally known as Community Project Funding) in appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2022.  Reviving earmarks would allow Members of Congress to secure funding for specific community projects in annual spending bills.

Under Chairwoman DeLauro’s plan, the Committee would accept up to 10 earmarks from each member for state and local government and nonprofit grantees, though only a handful may actually be funded.  For-profit entities would not be eligible to receive earmarks and total earmarks would be capped at one percent of discretionary funding.

The plan also includes several reforms to ensure accountability.  To increase transparency, members would be required to post every earmark request online on a searchable website established by the House Appropriations Committee.  To prevent conflicts of interest, members would be required to certify that they, their spouse, and their immediate family have no financial interest in the earmarks they request, expanding on the existing House rule which only covers Members and their spouses.  Members requesting earmarks would also be required to show that their communities support the requested project.  Under the plan, the Committee would be required to release a list of projects funded the same day as the Subcommittee markup (or one day prior to full committee consideration if a Subcommittee markup was not held.)  The Committee would also require the Government Accountability Office to audit a sample of enacted earmarks and report to Congress on its findings.

Members requesting funding must do so in writing and include their name, the name and location of the beneficiary, and the purpose of the spending item.  Committees are required to identify each earmark in a corresponding report or joint explanatory statement and make it available online in a searchable format.  Voting on a bill or adopting a conference report unless the Chair certifies that a comprehensive list of earmarks has been publicly available for at least two days will be forbidden and members will be able to raise points of order against provisions in conference reports which contain earmarks that were not included in the House or Senate appropriations bills.

House Democrats previously considered restoring earmarks last year, but declined to do so in order to protect freshmen in swing districts who feared that their Republican opponents would attack them for supporting the practice.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) indicated his support for earmarks and is working with House and Senate leadership to bring back the practice.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) appeared somewhat receptive to restoring earmarks, but indicated that he would defer to Senate Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) on the issue.

House Republicans remain divided on the issue.  While several members of the Freedom Caucus argue that restoring earmarks would create “pork barrel” spending, other Republicans argue that earmarks would give the legislative branch more power.  The Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus, will meet this week to consider the issue. 

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