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Congress set to revive limited earmarks to let lawmakers direct funds to special projects

The House Appropriations Committee is preparing to announce details of a plan to restore a limited version of earmarks, which give lawmakers power to direct spending to their districts to pay for special projects.

Why it matters: A series of scandals involving members in both parties prompted a moratorium on earmarks in 2011. But Democrats argue it's worth the risk to bring them back because earmarks would increase their leverage to pass critical legislation with a narrow majority, especially infrastructure and spending bills.

  • Plus, Democrats expect Republicans will join in the earmarks push once it’s clear directed spending is back.
  • There's already evidence that some are getting on board. “As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I believe there is a time and a place for congressionally directed appropriations that are guided by a set of specific parameters," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told Axios in a statement.
  • House Appropriations Committee chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is scheduled to brief the Democratic caucus on the proposal Friday morning.

The big picture: Past scandals, including the $400 million "bridge to nowhere" and former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham's jail time for corruption related to earmarks, have some members skeptical about the return of the controversial provision.

But Appropriations Committee Democrats believe they can avoid a return of those kinds of scandals by creating new safeguards that promote transparency and impose stricter limits on spending:

  • Earmark funding would be prioritized for community-backed projects.
  • For-profit institutions would no longer be eligible for funding.
  • Members' relatives wouldn't be able to have connections to the projects.
  • There would be a cap on the total amount of community projects funded.

What they're saying: “My view has been that it’s a constitutional responsibility of the Congress the United States and that members of Congress know their districts better than almost anybody else," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday.

  • "Their judgment, as to how we can invest in helping their districts, is best made by the members, and not by others.”

Driving the news: The moratorium was driven largely by Tea Party opposition to the practice. Now, Republicans are divided on the prospect of its return, with the more ideological members standing firm against it while establishment Republicans signaling openness to it.

  • The House Freedom Caucus issued a statement opposing earmarks on Wednesday, "whether in the 117th Congress or any future Congress."
  • "I don't see the guardrails and parameters in place with the earmarks right now that would suggest it's okay to use them," Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) told Axios. 'They can be used as leverage against anybody who has a problem or disagreement with leadership or anything like that."
  • Cole, however, argued that "when focused on core infrastructure and community service needs, this tool can vitally help members to ensure their constituencies are not overlooked.”
  • "I think they've been frankly misdescribed as to what they actually do, and so I think people are more afraid of the electoral consequences than they are of our leadership using them as leverage against our members.”
  • Republicans have a caucus-wide ban on earmarks and would have to remove it before their members could make earmark requests.

Michael Steel, who served as press secretary for House Speaker John Boehner, told Axios the removal of earmarks may have hamstrung Boehner at the time.

  • "There have been a number of institutional changes from campaign finance regulations to the rise of social media that have made the job of congressional leadership in both houses and both parties more difficult," he said. "Lack of earmarks is probably part of that."

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