Congressional earmarks may make stealthy return to U.S. House

Published: Friday, May 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this 2010 file photo, Republican Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell explains banning pork-barrel projects known as "earmarks" from congressional legislation is more complicated than it appears, but that he is willing to consider such a ban.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

Quietly — very quietly, because you're not supposed to notice it — House Republican leaders are beginning to talk about bringing back earmarks.

Earmarks are spending measures targeted to specific lawmakers' districts, doled out by powerful committee chairmen outside the normal legislative process. Unfortunately, they proved embarrassingly prone to abuse, perhaps the best known of them the $389 million so-called "bridge to nowhere" sought by two powerful senior Alaska Republicans. The bridge, until public outcry sidetracked it — these projects never really die — would have connected an island of 50 residents and an airport with the mainland a short ferry ride away.

Unhappily for the people of Ketchikan, their bridge project became a symbol of unchecked Washington excess. When the Republicans took over the House, they ostentatiously abjured earmarks among much self-adulation.

Unfortunately, for all the abuses and excesses, earmarks were remarkably successful tools for building support for legislation, disciplining lawmakers and fending off competing interests.

A case in point is the massive transportation bill. The $286 billion measure expired in 2009, and despite nine temporary extensions, Congress has been unable to agree on its renewal, typically for five years. The most recent extension expires June 30, and, in the meantime, has become ensnared in fighting over the Keystone XL pipeline extension.

With a little lubrication of a project here, or a project there, the bill might have passed by now. Indeed, reports the National Journal Daily, "even renegade freshmen long for the traditional tit-for-tat practice they earnestly vowed to end upon arriving in Washington." The House GOP Conference applauded Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., when he proposed ending the earmark ban.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and his fellow old bulls of the House would probably restore earmarks in a second if they could get away with it politically. But the Republicans have painted themselves into a corner with their insistence that the deficit be fought purely through spending cuts. And what else are earmarks if not customized spending?

Some of the GOP's best minds are pondering how to bring back earmarks, preferably under another name. The fractious Republican freshmen came to town vowing to do away with "business as usual." But business as usual beats doing no business at all.

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