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Politics & Government

Bipartisan Agreement In Congress To Revive Earmarks

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Congress is bringing back earmarks, those special pet funding projects lawmakers can tuck into legislation. Advocates say it will make Washington work better, but there are concerns that it will lead to the very same corrupt practices that led them to being banned more than a decade ago. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is here now. Hey there, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: Most members of Congress have never served when earmarks were basically a part of everyday business. Take us back. How big of an influence were they on how laws were made?

DAVIS: Well, if you ask the leaders of that era, they would say they were very effective in getting support for things like spending bills and infrastructure bills because it was just so much harder to vote against something if a lawmaker's state or district stood to directly benefit from it. Former Senate leader Tom Daschle - he's a Democrat - he talked about this earlier this year.

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TOM DASCHLE: Right now, there's no investment in the legislation oftentimes. People pass or oppose things, and they just don't feel connected to it. But once they have skin in the game and a real opportunity to be a part of that legislation, their attitude changes.

DAVIS: It's not just Democrats. Former Republican Senate leader Trent Lott agrees with Daschle here and supports earmarks coming back. And, you know, advocates have been saying for years that banning the practice didn't stop spending, it just shifted the power to the executive branch. And Congress wants that power back.

CORNISH: Republicans banned earmarks when they took control of Congress in 2011, in part because of a number of corruption scandals, right? I mean, why bring them back now?

DAVIS: Well, Democrats are in charge now, and there's been much more vocal support in their party to bring them back. But there is bipartisan support for it. A House committee last year unanimously recommended their return, although with a bit of a rebranding effort. You're going to hear lawmakers call them community funding projects from now on. And Democrats were backed up last week when House Republicans voted in private to support bringing them back as well.

One big outstanding question here is whether Senate Republicans are going to get on board. But Democrats don't really need their support to do it. It would just make it look better if they did. Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Leahy says he wants to split the earmark money pile 50/50 with Republicans, but if they don't want to take any of it, Democrats will be happy to use it all.

CORNISH: The rebranding makes me think that there is some resistance, right?

DAVIS: Yeah.

CORNISH: What are people saying?

DAVIS: Well, opponents have long argued that it's like a form of legalized bribery because it gives leadership too much power over rank-and-file lawmakers to dangle these project requests as bait to get their votes. Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul is someone who's very opposed to bringing them back. And he made the case in a recent hearing that a lot of the earmarks of the past were just seen as wasteful spending.

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RAND PAUL: Fifty thousand dollars to the Detroit Institute of Bagels. There's one we really think we need to spend some money on. Ninety thousand dollars to create audio tours of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. Five hundred thousand dollars to the Teapot Hall of Fame, which closed before construction was completed.

DAVIS: But here's another key point about earmarks - one lawmaker's waste is another lawmaker's economic investment. The founders of the Detroit Institute of Bagels put out a statement in response to Senator Paul's comments saying the money they received helped create 25 jobs and contributed more than $350,000 in taxes back to the government - saying the federal government, quote, "would have a hard time getting a better return on its investment than it did with that $50,000."

CORNISH: What are the guardrails, then, that lawmakers might put in place to make sure that these new earmarks - or as they're being called, community funded projects - don't end up causing the same problems that they did, you know, a decade ago?

DAVIS: Well, lawmakers are going to have to make the request public, they'll be capped at 10 requests and they can only benefit certain entities. Requests can't be for anything that benefits an immediate family member. And the overall pile of money for earmarks is going to be capped at 1% of annual discretionary spending. So that means about $14 billion in earmarks for this coming fiscal year.

CORNISH: That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Thank you.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.