Senate GOP Adopts Permanent Earmarks Ban, But They May Still Return

June 3, 2019 Updated: June 3, 2019

WASHINGTON—A majority of the Senate Republican Conference voted recently to make permanent a temporary ban adopted in 2011 on earmarks in federal spending, but pressure remains to bring back the discredited pork-barrel tool.

“The last thing taxpayers need is for the same politicians who racked up a $22 trillion national debt to go on an earmark binge,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, the Nebraska Republican who pushed the earmark ban.

“It’s pretty simple: Earmarks are a crummy way to govern and they have no business in Congress. Backroom deals, kickbacks, and earmarks feed a culture of constant incumbency and that’s poisonous to healthy self-government,” Sasse said in a statement following the May 23 conference meeting.

“This is an important fight and I’m glad that my Republican colleagues agreed with my rules change to make the earmark ban permanent,” he continued.

A vote by the conference, because Republicans hold the Senate majority, effectively establishes a rule, meaning legislation coming to the floor for a vote must honor Sasse’s earmark ban.

The conference vote, however, was 28–12, suggesting that at least a dozen Republican senators would like to see earmarks restored, at least in some fashion. There are 53 Republicans in the Senate, though not all were present.

The 2011 ban was sponsored by then-Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and was the result of a long campaign by Tea Party conservatives in Congress and an outsiders coalition of conservative bloggers known as the Porkbusters.

Earmarks are spending instructions buried in appropriations bills and bill reports directing federal departments to spend tax dollars on projects such as roads, bridges, or contracts, often to the benefit of a friend, family member, or campaign donor of an anonymous senator or representative.

Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) called earmarks “the gateway drug to federal spending addiction” for members of Congress, and it was the 2010 “Tea Party” election that returned Republicans to control of the House of Representatives that set the stage for DeMint’s moratorium in 2011.

Sasse’s measure was required because the DeMint ban expired with the 115th Congress, but members of both parties have been quietly seeking for years to bring earmarks back.

Earlier this year, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) thought they had sufficient support for a deal to restore earmarks, but that effort fizzled in March.

“Mr. Hoyer will continue to have conversations with leaders from both parties and chambers to find a path forward to restore earmarks with reforms to ensure transparency and accountability,” Hoyer spokesperson Mariel Saez said at the time.

And Lowey said efforts would continue on both sides of the aisle to “change rules to permit members to request earmarks.”

Those statements in March and the fact that a dozen Republican senators opposed the Sasse measure in May worry earmark opponents.

“The earmark ban that Jim DeMint put in place seemed to work pretty well,” veteran Senate Republican aide Brian Darling told The Epoch Times on June 3. “Hopefully, the House will follow suit and ban earmarks. It’s doubtful but it would be nice if both chambers had an earmark ban, so they could try and control spending.”

Asked if the 12 Republican senators’ opposition to the Sasse measure concerns him, Darling said, “There’s always been resistance within the Republican party to the earmark ban, something Jim DeMint forced on them and they had to support because of their position on controlling federal spending, but they weren’t happy about it.”

Pointing to the continuing effort in Congress to gain passage of a huge transportation infrastructure spending bill, Darling said, “I’m sure the Democratic and Republican leadership would like nothing more than to load it up with earmarks.”

Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) President David Williams told The Epoch Times on June 3 that “Congress changes the rules all the time, and if they determine something is not an earmark, then it’s not subject to the ban.

“That’s been our biggest problem for years where we’ve had a moratorium on earmarks for years, yet there’s still tens of billions of dollars of earmarks in the Pentagon’s budget.”

Williams said the TPA defines earmarks as spending that is not requested by an executive branch department or agency that is inserted by members of Congress.

Appropriations bills for other agencies have been mostly free of earmarks since 2011, Williams said, but “it’s the defense department where they just can’t stop doing this. For one thing, it’s the defense budget and not a lot of people are going to criticize it.”

He cited as an example “the Abrams tank, which the Pentagon said, ‘We don’t like this tank anymore, yet you keep on telling us to build it.’”

Williams added that “Sasse deserves credit for this, but we are just suspect because both Republicans and Democrats, not all of them, but they want to bring earmarks back and that’s why they float this idea every new Congress.”

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