WASHINGTON: Republicans in the US House of Representatives on Wednesday (Mar 17) voted to join Democrats in ending their self-imposed ban on earmarks and resume the controversial practice of allowing lawmakers to add pet projects to spending bills.
The move comes as Congress prepares to take up a number of spending bills, as well as an expected infrastructure package sought by Democratic President Joe Biden that could be worth as much as US$2 trillion over 10 years.
The decision signals a Republican willingness to negotiate with Democrats on the details of a massive infrastructure package and the federal budget.
Earmarks are considered legislative “sweeteners” that Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, can use to dissuade members from defecting on major bills and attract votes from Republicans who otherwise may oppose a measure.
News of the 102-84 House Republican vote to resume earmarks drew a mixed reaction from Republicans in the US Senate, who now appear to be heading toward their own decision on the topic.
Republicans halted the practice when they took the House majority in 2011, amid a series of controversies and concerns that earmarks were driving up the federal deficit with wasteful spending. Lawmakers said earmarks will now return with safeguards to foster transparency and combat corruption.
“There’s a real concern about the administration directing where money goes. This doesn’t add one more dollar. I think members here know … about what should go in their district, not Biden,” Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters.
House and Senate Republicans are divided between those who view earmarks as a way for lawmakers to influence the flow of federal money to their constituents and members of the party’s conservative wing who worry about the effects on the debt and entrenched political interests.
“The Republican Party should be ashamed of itself for embracing earmarks when the American people are staring at US$30 trillion in debt,” congressman Chip Roy said after the vote. He was one of 18 House Republicans who told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a letter that they would not participate in the practice.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz called the decision “a serious mistake,” telling reporters that “earmarks have played a major role in the out-of-control spending we have in Washington and they play a major role in entrenching the swamp.”
Earmarks became a hot campaign issue in the early 2000s after a long string of scandals in which lawmakers from both parties secured earmarks to enrich themselves.
Soon after House Republicans banned the practice in 2011, the Democratic-led Senate followed suit at the urging of Democratic President Barack Obama. Earmarks have been gone since.
But Democratic lawmakers announced earlier this year that they were bringing back the practice, hoping it could solve a few issues, such as keeping their narrow majorities together on big votes, boosting vulnerable members’ re-election chances in 2022 and perhaps attracting Republican support.
A number of Senate Republicans on Wednesday signalled that they favoured the practice with adequate protections in place.
“I have an interest in seeing the current status changed,” Republican Senator Mike Rounds told reporters