‘Ignoring the ban and winking at earmarks would be a disservice to taxpayers and, frankly, dumb politics,’ says Nebraska GOP senator Ben Sasse.
Earmarks are back. After a decade-long hiatus, House Democrats announced in February that legislators would be allowed to sponsor measures directing money to be spent on specific projects or programs in their respective districts. The House GOP conference followed suit in March, voting 102–84 in a secret ballot to allow members to request earmarks, so long as the request is made public and the rationale for the project is put down in writing.
On Wednesday, Senate Republicans left an internal party meeting with an agreement to keep their conference’s 2019 “permanent ban” on earmarks in place. Shortly after the meeting concluded, however, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said GOP senators are free to flout the rule if they’d like.
“If you don’t want earmarks, don’t ask for one,” Shelby told Bloomberg News. “You might not get one. But the old earmark days, they’re gone. They’re going to have to be meritorious. They’re going to have to be substantive in nature and meaningful.”
Nebraska GOP senator Ben Sasse contends it would be both bad policy and bad politics for the Senate GOP to flout their own rule on earmarks. “The conference rules are pretty straightforward. Republicans voted for our rules — we ought to keep them,” Sasse tells National Review. “Ignoring the ban and winking at earmarks would be a disservice to taxpayers and, frankly, dumb politics. You don’t have to be a deficit hawk to get this: Earmarks are under water among Republicans, Independents, and Democrats.”
A recent Morning Consult poll found that a plurality of voters oppose earmarks — 43 percent to 19 percent — but 37 percent didn’t have an opinion about the practice.
Texas senator Ted Cruz said he was unaware of any other precedent in which Senate Republicans openly flouted one of their conference rules. He nevertheless called the decision to keep the earmark ban in the conference rules an “important victory.”
“There were members who wanted to eliminate that ban and the large majority of the conference disagrees,” Cruz told National Review. “Any individual senator can always choose to act in violation of the conference rules. I hope that they don’t do so.”
In the years leading up to the 2011 ban, earmarks became notorious because of wasteful (“the bridge to nowhere”) and corrupt practices. Advocates of an earmark ban argued that they were the “gateway drug” to higher spending, but Ramesh Ponnuru notes in a recent Bloomberg Opinion column that the ban didn’t do much to slow down federal spending (in their heyday, earmarks made up 3 percent of federal spending). The moratorium simply gave the executive branch authority over spending and left members of Congress directing their requests to executive agencies.
Sasse acknowledges that entitlements are the “key drivers” of our debt, but he believes reintroducing earmarks will just lead to members of Congress spending more time “figuring out how you can get pork and pet projects for members of Congress to be able to claim victory with their constituents” rather than figuring out how to pay for a bill that will eventually come due.
“We are now just going to eclipse the World War II high-water mark of debt-to-GDP ratio,” says Sasse. “We’ve never been here before. We’re in uncharted territory.”