October 20, 2020

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House Appropriations candidates float possible return of earmarks

When Democrats took control of the House in January 2019, they didn’t add a similar ban to their caucus rules or the House’s official rules package, technically leaving the door open to earmarks. But House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., who is retiring at the end of the year, opted not to allow the practice in last year’s spending bills.

[House Democrats won’t resurrect earmarks this year]

Lowey came back to the issue with a series of caucus meetings in January. She ultimately decided against bringing back earmarks after meeting with vulnerable Democrats, who had concerns despite assurances that the process would be transparent and that project funding would be spread around more evenly than in the past.

Smoke-filled rooms

The term “earmarks” still has negative connotations, conjuring images of smoke-filled rooms and wasteful projects like the famed “bridges to nowhere” in the 2005 highway bill connecting sparsely populated parts of Alaska. That’s one reason both parties have tried to rebrand the practice, with Republicans referring to earmarks as “congressionally directed spending” and Democrats renaming them “community project funding.”

Decisions by Kaptur and Wasserman Schultz to support earmarking, and by DeLauro to leave the door open, wouldn’t guarantee that House leadership would bring back the practice during the 117th Congress, especially if moderate Democrats push back. Nonetheless, restoring earmarks has high-level support on both sides of the Capitol, including from House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, who served on Appropriations for 24 years and continues to hold his seniority.

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