Feb 15, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Congressional earmarks are coming back — with new constraints

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Top Senate appropriators say the return of earmarks — albeit with new branding — will now happen through this year's omnibus spending package.

Why it matters: Though much discussed during the past year, finally reversing the decade-old ban on congressional earmarks will allow lawmakers to target federal spending toward projects in their districts, but with significant new limitations.

Driving the news: Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Axios he expects earmarks to make it into the budget but stressed the Senate has a new term of art for them.

  • "There will be congressionally directed spending, yes. Of course, there will be," he said. "There will be congressionally directed spending."
  • In the House, they're referred to as "community-project funding."
  • "Oh, I would think so," Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Leahy's Republican counterpart on the Appropriations panel, said of earmarks making it into the budget.

Between the lines: The return of earmarks is a defeat for House conservatives, who decried the practice, and a win for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, in their negotiations with the Senate.

Proponents argue the comeback will ease partisan dysfunction over budgets and wrest control of the process from the more opaque Executive Branch.

  • Before appropriators formally celebrate their return, the House and Senate need to agree to an omnibus appropriations bill.

Flashback: What had become known as "pork-barrel spending" was banned by both chambers in 2011.

By the numbers: In the House, 223 Democrats have already submitted requests for 2,031 projects, according to a Democratic aide.

  • On the Republican side, 108 representatives have requested funding for 708 projects.
  • The new guidelines cap earmarks at 1% of discretionary spending. They also exclude projects benefitting for-profit companies and require earmark requests to be posted online.

Go deeper: Paul Kane of The Washington Post wrote a primer about the potential return of the "e-word."

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