House Republicans Vote to Accept Earmarks, but Under Unlikely Rules

This week, House Republicans voted to reverse their decade-old ban on requesting earmarked projects for their districts. The action was taken in light of the House Democratic majority announcing late last month that they were bringing back earmarks. When the GOP held the majority of the House, their internal ban was tantamount to an actual House rule banning earmarks (since if earmarks weren’t happening for the majority, no amount of requesting by the minority would matter). But once earmarks were coming back regardless of GOP participation, the political calculus was different for a majority of GOP members.

The secret-ballot vote in a closed-door session of the House Republican Conference was contentious and fairly close—several Capitol Hill reporters said that the margin in favor of the pro-earmark resolution offered by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) was 120 yeas, 84 nays. Had just 18 members switched sides, the Rogers resolution would have failed on a tie vote. This is where the “secret ballot” rule of Congressional caucus voting comes into play—had this vote been recorded, instead of a secret ballot, it is entirely possible that Rogers’ resolution would not have passed.

Anti-earmark Republicans were not happy. Several members of the House Freedom Caucus held a live event with Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) criticizing the vote. Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC) tweeted “Earmarks are tools of the DC swamp and Republicans should not participate.” Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) has been circulating an open letter to the Speaker signed by GOP colleagues who say that, despite the vote, they will not be requesting any earmarks.

The Rogers resolution was relatively simple and had two parts. The first was a requirement that, if any GOP member requests an earmark, it has to go through the same open disclosure rules that Democrats have set up. But the second part was a “share the wealth” requirement that, if actually implemented, will be the exact opposite of how Congressional committees have traditionally handled earmarks:

“Republican chairs or Ranking Members shall not give consideration to a Member’s seniority, committee assignments, or position in the elected leadership when facilitating a request made pursuant to this order.”

In the past, bills that have been earmarked by Congress have given a much larger dollar amount of earmarks to members of the committee and subcommittee that drafted the legislation, especially those with a lot of seniority (particularly the chairmen and ranking minority members), and have also given disproportionate rewards to members of the party leadership and other committee chairmen or ranking members.

(Ed. Note: Back in the earmark days, why do you think the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, with its 75 members, was the largest in Congress? Members weren’t dying to get on the panel just because of the subject matter.)

If the T&I Committee drafts and earmarks a surface transportation bill, will ranking minority member Sam Graves (R-MO) really give a freshman Republican who is not on T&I the same amount of earmark money as he gives to his Highways and Transit Subcommittee ranking member Rodney Davis (R-IL)?

After the vote, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) told reporters that “Members want to have a say in their own district.” Apropos of that, elsewhere in this issue of ETW, we are reprinting the long article I wrote in 2006 describing how the biggest highway earmarks were allocated in the 2005 highway bill. The most absurdly large earmark total—north of $750 million—went to Ways and Means chairman Bill Thomas (R-CA), for whom McCarthy used to work as a staffer and whose district McCarthy now represents. Including $330 million for a single road In Bakersfield, the Centennial Corridor Loop.

The analysis shows that, in 2005, House Democrats did the best job of making sure that the biggest earmarks went to projects that went across the districts of multiple members or provided significant regional benefits. House Republicans, and to a lesser extent Senate Republicans, put the lion’s share of the money in the districts of committee and party leaders.

(In 2005, new Highways and Transit Subcommittee ranking minority member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) got so much earmark money that he ran out of identifiable ready-to-go projects confined to his district so he allocated $160 million to “I–5 Bridge repair, replacement and associated improvements in the I–5 corridor” throughout Oregon.)

Bloomberg’s Steven Dennis had probably the best take on why House R’s agreed to join Democrats in taking earmark money once again: “Earmarks arguably matter more for House Republicans than any other group in Congress right now. Why? Because minority House members when the other party has a trifecta have very little power. An earmark might be the only thing they can point to with their name on it.”

But when the totals of the appropriations, surface transportation, and water infrastructure bill earmarks are tallied (which we will be able to do when the bills are released), we will be very surprised if the second part of the Rogers resolution is really obeyed to the letter of the rule.

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