Mar 7, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Senate plots its own earmark return

Illustration of a hand putting a hundred dollar bill in a piggy bank with lines on it like a butcher diagram

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With the Senate done battling over President Biden's coronavirus rescue package, it's preparing to tackle another priority: earmarks.

Driving the news: Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the top members on the Senate Appropriations Committee, are expected to work out a deal restoring the congressional spending tool in the coming weeks, committee aides tell Axios.

  • Earmarks give lawmakers the power to direct spending to pay for special projects in their districts. They've already been reintroduced in the House.
  • The process faces tougher obstacles in the Senate, given its razor-thin majority, though lawmakers are hopeful Leahy can reach an agreement with Shelby.
  • Two Democratic committee aides tell Axios that if Republicans refuse to come on board, they expect Leahy will drop earmarks altogether rather than try to push through a Democrat-only proposal.

Behind the scenes: For years, Appropriations Committee members have privately complained about the absence of earmarks.

  • “Congress has the power of the purse laid out by the Constitution, directing where U.S. taxpayer dollars will go," a committee aide said."The idea that some bureaucrat in D.C. has a better idea of where funding should go in these districts and states, than the representatives themselves, is absurd."
  • The aide said most Appropriations Committee members share the sentiment.

Leahy and other pro-earmarks lawmakers have a couple of tools to help restore earmarks:

Joe Biden. He was very effective in using earmarks while in the Senate, and successfully used them to get funding for Dover Air Force Base and other projects in Delaware.

  • While no one in the executive branch will openly admit they like earmarks, since they cede power to Congress, the president "certainly understands earmarks and their value," one aide said.
  • Biden has been quiet about the topic, a sign he's giving Congress breathing room to negotiate.

Fresh guardrails. Democrats plan to implement new restrictions making it far more difficult to misuse earmarks.

  • A series of scandals involving members abusing the process prompted a moratorium on earmarks in 2011.
  • The new rules would limit the number of requests each lawmaker can make; require each earmark to have community support; cap total funding projects to 1% of all discretionary spending, and require members to post their earmark requests on their websites.

The bottom line: The longer they stray from 2011 and the more turnover in their chambers, members of Congress will find it more difficult to reinstitute them.

Go deeper: Here come Earmarks 2.0.

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