Republicans Backpedal on Earmarks--They're Useful After All

Although they might not call them "earmarks"

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Politico reports this week that House and Senate Republicans, who voted last month to ban the use of earmarks for the next session of Congress, are now having second thoughts as they realize how difficult it will be to get money for projects in their states. With the blanket ban in place, some Republicans are talking about redefining the term "earmark," in order to find some wiggle room to secure funding. Meanwhile, left-leaning and libertarian commentators seem to be having a good time watching the GOP legislators squirm.

  • How Are We Supposed to Pay for Stuff?  Politico's Jake Sherman writes that "many Republicans are now worried that the bridges in their districts won't be fixed, the tariff relief to the local chemical company isn't coming and the water systems might not be built without a little direction from Congress ... Everywhere from K Street to Capitol Hill, insiders are asking how projects across the country will get money. Many think the spigot is closed, and they are none too pleased."
  • Republicans Nervous  Sherman quotes a number of GOP representatives, some of whom are less sanguine than others. Jack Kingston: "Let's look at transportation ... How do you handle that without earmarks, since that's a heavily earmarked bill? How do you handle a Corps of Engineers project? I think, right now, we go through a period where we have gone one step further than we meant to go, and there are some unintended consequences." Michele Bachmann: "The earmark issue touches transportation front and center, because how else do we fund these without ceding all the authority to the executive branch?" Mike Simpson: "We have to go through this process of not using earmarks for a couple of years ... There's going to be things that are legitimate that they want to do in their districts that are appropriate, that are the reason we are here--one of the reasons we are here--[that] they're not going to be able to do."
  • Let's Just Redefine 'Earmark'  Politico also quotes Phil Roe, a Republican representative from Tennessee, who says that there are earmarks and then there are earmarks. "It's like what beauty is ... Everyone knows what a bridge to nowhere is, or an airport that lands no airplanes, or a statue to you --everyone knows that's bad. It's easy to say what an earmark isn't, rather than what an earmark is."
  • It's Actually Really Easy to Say What an Earmark Is! counters Dan Amira at New York Magazine.
The Republican Conference rules define an earmark as a request 'authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority or any other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific state, locality or congressional district other than through a statutory or administrative-formula-driven or competitive award process.' What Congressman Roe really means is that it's hard to tell which earmarks are wastes of money and which are useful. Which is why enacting a blanket earmark prohibition was probably a little overzealous.
It's rank hypocrisy, really. First, Republicans try to claim their fiscal conservative bona fides with a purely symbolic and utterly pointless ban on earmarking. Then, after it passes, they turn around and redefine what an 'earmark' is so that they can continue funneling money to their districts. It stands as proof not only of their own phoniness, but also of the fact that 'earmarking' is part and parcel of a large government that spends a lot of money. No matter how you try to ban it, legislators will always find a way to get money and government to their district and their supporters.
  • Republicans Learn What the Word 'Ban' Means  "When congressional Republicans backed a two-year earmark moratorium in a wave of post-election enthusiasm," writes Katherine Mangu-Ward at Reason, "apparently they didn't understand that banning earmarks would entail not having any more earmarks."
  • Business as Usual  Stan Collender at Capital Gains and Games sees no great revolution in the making.
Prediction: No matter what the incoming GOP majority has said and wants us to believe, the number and dollar value of earmarks in the next Congress will be at least as great, and probably more, than the amount from previous years ... The only thing eliminating earmarks does is change who decides how an appropriation will be spent from Congress to the executive branch; it absolutely does not reduce the amount that will be spent. So to a certain extent none of this really matters.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.