House GOP Postpones Decision on Whether to Restore Limited Earmarks

Ryan pledges to have a vote on the matter by the end of March

Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., wants an exemption to a House GOP earmark ban for water projects. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call file photo)

House Republicans began a discussion Wednesday on whether to restore limited earmarks in spending bills after banning the practice in 2010. But Speaker Paul D. Ryan requested members delay a vote on the matter until early next year. 

The House Republican Conference met for more than three hours Wednesday to discuss party rules for the 115th Congress. Among the amendments the conference debated to its rules package were two proposals to restore some form of earmarking — the once common practice of designating discretionary funds for a specific project or purpose. 

After it appeared one of the amendments was going to pass, Ryan stepped in to urge the conference to hold off on making a decision, according to multiple people present. 

Ryan argued that the GOP should not restore the practice behind closed doors after last week’s “drain the swamp” election, a source in the room said. In exchange for members agreeing to withdraw the amendments, Ryan pledged to set up a more elaborate process to examine the issue and pledged to hold a vote by the end of the first quarter of 2017, the source said.  

Members said most of the discussion was centered around a proposal from Florida Rep. Tom Rooney to provide an exemption to the earmark ban for water projects funded through the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. The amendment, which was withdrawn, would have given Congress the authority to decide which projects to prioritize but did not call for more spending. 

Rooney had presented the same proposal to a House Rules subcommittee earlier this year during a hearing on proposed rules changes for the next Congress. The rules package the GOP adopted Wednesday is just for the Republican Conference; the larger House rules package will be finalized later this year and voted on when the new Congress begins in January. 

[House Members Seek Rules Changes on Ousting Speaker, Moments of Silence]

Rooney’s amendment was about to pass before leadership “shut it down,” Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie told reporters. 

Another amendment, offered by Texas Rep. John Culberson, was a more direct call for restoring the practice. Culberson’s amendment, also withdrawn, would have allowed earmarks targeted to federal, state and local government projects so long as they were added “in the bright sunlight” as part of the committee process, according to a description provided to members and obtained by Roll Call.  

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said its wrong to interpret Rooney’s amendment as a proposal to restore earmarks. 

“Rooney’s [amendment] was about redirecting the Corps, which goes to the heart of the Article 1 portion,” he said, referring to a plank of House Republicans’ “A Better Way Agenda” that calls for restoring the constitutional authority of Congress to decide how federal dollars are spent.

“Everybody was getting up talking about their problems the Corps of Engineers and the projects ... they have, and them [the agency] not being responsive,” the California Republican added. “This goes into all the other agencies [and] how we want to be able to have accountability.”

The discussion on earmarks is not over, McCarthy said. 

“We’ll continue to talk about how we deal with Article 1 powers, making sure that the Article 1 powers come back to the House and Senate and not with the administration,” he said. 

House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions told reporters he supports earmarks so long as they are limited and transparent. He said he would have supported Culberson's amendment, which he said would "avoid the midnight tacking on" where an earmark was added to a bill via last-minute negotiations. 

"If it's an earmark to one person, it can be an earmark to a delegation too," the Texas Republican said. "And I think [the earmark ban] has neutralized members of Congress' ability to work with people back home on transportation projects, airport projects. And that should not be."

In total, the conference debated 19 amendments to its rules package but only passed a few noncontroversial proposals via voice vote.

Among the amendments that were adopted:

  • Indiana Rep. Luke Messer’s proposal that all conference meetings be conducted in accordance with House rules that govern decorum; 
  • Utah Rep. Rob Bishop’s proposal to add language ensuring that government-to-government land conveyances would not be considered a violation of the rules; and
  • Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s proposal to make available online a list of various boards, commissions and committees whose memberships include appointees by the speaker or majority leader.

Several other amendments were discussed but either rejected or withdrawn, including proposals related to committee appointments and to the appropriations process .

The only roll call vote taken was on a proposal Alabama Rep. Gary Palmer offered to prohibit bills from being considered under suspension of the rules if the cost exceeds $500 million. It narrowly failed. 

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