Washington – U.S. House Republicans were stopped from bringing back a practice that once funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Connecticut – but the once reviled congressional earmark looks like it’s going to make a comeback anyway.
Saying it ran counter to the “drain the swamp” election that propelled Donald Trump to the White House, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., persuaded GOP members meeting behind closed doors Wednesday to hold off voting on an amendment that would bring back the banned earmark or special project.
A source in the room where House GOP members were meeting to establish the chamber’s rules for the incoming Congress said that after a long debate “it was clear there’s a lot of pent up frustration with ceding spending authority to the executive branch” instead members of Congress.
“Based on the comments by members, it was likely that an earmark amendment would have passed,” the source said. “Ultimately, the speaker stepped in and urged that we not make this decision today. He said we just had a ‘drain the swamp’ election and cannot turn right around and bring back earmarks behind closed doors.”
Ryan promised his fellow Republicans he would hold a vote to restore earmarks in the first three months of next year.
Although Republicans were set to bring them back Wednesday, the “pent-up frustration” over the ban on earmarks is bipartisan.
Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said he’s willing to use earmarks to fund an ambitious plan, estimated to cost at least $10 billion, to build massive highway tunnels under Hartford.
He dismisses the notion that earmarks bloat the federal budget and grow the deficit.
“It’s always been 1 percent or less than 1 percent of the budget,” he said.
For years, lawmakers of both parties used earmarks, also known as member items, to secure money for projects back home that could not be funded through the regular appropriations process.
Connecticut lawmakers earmarked millions of dollars for research programs at UConn, repairs at Mark Twain’s former home in Hartford, the dredging of Norwalk Harbor, dozens and dozens of road and bridge projects, and construction at Naval Submarine Base New London.
Smaller earmarks were also used to fund non-profits like a Boys and Girls Club in Shelton and a diaper bank in New Haven.
But former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, led the effort to ban earmarks when the GOP took control of the House in 2010. Earmarks were blamed for corruption on Capitol Hill after disgraced Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., went to jail for taking $2.4 million worth of bribes in return for securing earmarks and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, used earmarks to fund an expensive “bridge to nowhere.”
The Senate followed with its own earmark ban.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, who was elected after earmarks were eliminated and hasn’t had a chance to seek funding for a special project, called the earmark ban an “overreaction.”
She said the nation’s 535 federal lawmakers know better than anyone else what local needs are.
“There’s no way that bureaucrats in Washington D.C. could have the same fine level of sense of what is needed in the 5th District,” Esty said.
Screaming for earmarks
Some say the earmark ban has contributed to the gridlock in Congress, resulting in inaction on appropriations bills and stripping a disciplinary tool from party leaders – who could take a member item away or promise to secure one.
Conservative groups lobbied House Republicans vigorously this week to not bring back earmarks.
“Americans in both parties are fed up with the cronyism and corruption in Washington, and they delivered a stunning message to the nation’s ruling class, “ said Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham. “Any attempt to roll back the longstanding ban on congressional earmarks — the lubricant that empowers politicians to cut bad deals — would amount to a rebuke of those voters. Americans deserve an honest, transparent government that is working for everyone, not simply doling out favors to a well- connected few.”
Republicans who pressed for changing the rules on earmarks say they would not return in the same form, that there would be more scrutiny and limitations.
“We are not repealing the earmark ban. We are restoring the spending power that the Founding Fathers entrusted to Congress, and making the process totally transparent from start to finish,” said Rep. John Abney Culberson, Texas Republican. “This amendment ensures that our elected officials control how our taxpayer dollars are spent and not un-elected bureaucrats in the backrooms of federal agencies.”
Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., Tom Rooney, R-Fla., and Mike Rogers, R-Pa. co-sponsored the measure with Culberson.
Former Rep. Rob Simmons, who is now the Republican first selectman of Stonington, said he used earmarks to steer millions of dollars for fuel cell research at the University of Connecticut, the Mystic Seaport, the Mystic River Bridge, construction of a train station in Enfield and dozens of other local priorities.
“At the time people were saying ‘There’s not going to be a train station in Enfield,” Simmons said. “Well there’s a train station in Enfield.”
Simmons said his former eastern Connecticut congressional district, represented now by Democrat Joe Courtney, “is a large, agricultural district that nobody pays attention to.”
“If I didn’t get earmarks, it got nothing,” Simmons said. “If there’s nobody yelling and screaming like Joe Courtney it will get nothing.”