Senate Republicans Shun Earmarks, Embracing Spending Restraint Anew
With a Democratic president in the White House, Senate Republicans have a newfound zeal for austerity, foreshadowing spending fights to come.,
WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are trying to reclaim the mantle of fiscal conservatism, adopting multiple symbolic resolutions aimed at curbing federal spending that could lead to clashes with Democrats over President Biden’s infrastructure plan, the government’s ability to continue borrowing money and the dozen annual spending bills.
Under President Donald J. Trump, Republicans largely abandoned their zeal for austerity and endorsed a series of spending increases, including approving more than $3 trillion in 2020 alone to address the economic and health toll of the coronavirus pandemic. But in an internal party vote on Wednesday, they said goodbye to all of that, affirming a series of rules that underscored how, with a Democrat in the White House, Republicans planned to revive demands for big funding cuts.
In a private gathering, they agreed that limitations on the government’s ability to borrow should be paired with either spending cuts or reductions of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. In 2019, lawmakers agreed to suspend the statutory debt ceiling for two years without either caveat, with support from the Trump administration.
The Senate Republican Conference also affirmed an existing, decade-old ban on earmarks, even as the House is poised to revived the practice of allowing individual lawmakers to direct spending to specific projects for their districts and states in legislation. House Republicans last month voted to overturn a similar ban in their conference, as Democrats have said they plan to bring back earmarks with strict new transparency requirements.
The rules that govern the Republican conference are nonbinding and largely symbolic. Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, told reporters that the debt ceiling resolution, put forward by Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, was “aspirational.”
But the measures are an indication of Republican priorities, and could foreshadow big fights to come on an array of issues. The debt limit is one example: If Republicans stick to their rule, it could lead to an impasse over federal borrowing that could force the government to default on its debt obligations.
“I certainly hope that every member of the Republican conference complies with what the conference rules say,” said Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas.
Leaving the private gathering on Wednesday, multiple senators signaled they might not. Some said they would most likely pursue earmarks, which Democrats are revamping with a new name — “community project funding” — and a series of guardrails to ward off abuse.
“Basically, if the Democrats choose to proceed, I think that that allows each member to determine where they’re going to be on earmarks,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska. “I have long believed that it is one of our responsibilities under the legislative branch — outlined in the Constitution — and I never really felt that we should cede that authority to the agencies because that is effectively what we have done.”
The practice of allowing lawmakers to set aside funding in huge government funding bills for individual projects in their communities gave them the chance to reflect the needs of their constituents and a mechanism for leaders to finesse tough votes on legislation.
But they came to be seen as a symbol of self-dealing and waste in government, and they grew increasingly toxic as a wave of self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives washed into Congress. After a series of scandals — including one that led to the imprisonment of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff — Congress ultimately banned earmarks in 2011.
Under new guidelines outlined this year by House Democrats, they will be revived. Lawmakers will be required to disclose each project request on their congressional websites and certify that no one in their families stand to benefit. Only 1 percent of the money annually appropriated, outside of entitlement spending, will be available for earmarks, and each member will be allowed up to 10 requests. The Government Accountability Office will also audit some of the projects.
“We should acknowledge that over the history of congressional earmarks, there were ones that were used for corrupt purposes,” said Molly E. Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “But by and large, that’s not the circumstances under which they were used.”
“It has the potential to give legislators a sense of purpose and a reason for doing the work that they do,” she added.
The loss of earmarks is seen by many as a factor behind the gridlock that has plagued Congress, giving rank-and-file lawmakers little motivation for supporting giant legislation largely drafted by party leaders and giving more power to the executive branch over how taxpayer dollars are spent.
Lawmakers have increasingly flirted with bringing earmarks back with new accountability measures, a recommendation echoed by a House committee dedicated to modernizing Congress. House Democrats explored the prospects of bringing them back when they first reclaimed the majority after the 2018 midterms, but did not formally unveil a process for doing so until after Democrats took back the Senate in January.
“What we wanted to do is to reinstate the system and to correct, if you will, what has happened in the past and to provide the restrictions, the guidelines, the guardrails,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut and the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, who first unveiled a proposal for bringing back the practice.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said that he planned to speak with his Republican counterpart, Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, about the process moving forward. Mr. Leahy had previously floated the possibility of dividing a pot of money evenly between Democrats and Republicans, with similar transparency guardrails.
“Democrats are going to use the earmarks and the House Republicans are going to use them — are we going to give the Democrats in the Senate $8 billion to use against us?” Mr. Shelby said, referring to the possible pot of money lawmakers could divvy up. “If you don’t want an earmark, don’t ask for one, and even if you ask for one, you might not get one because the old earmark days — they’re gone.”
The projects, however, will be funded only if Congress reaches agreement on the dozen annual spending bills and the total levels of domestic and military spending. Efforts to include earmarks in other bills, including infrastructure legislation, could be jettisoned should Democrats decide to advance it through the fast-track budget reconciliation process, which is subject to strict Senate rules.
Other Republicans stressed that they hoped their colleagues would join them in opposition to earmarks, even if Democrats moved ahead.
“We shouldn’t be pursuing this. And for Republicans to support those earmarks, it’s almost like incremental liberalism,” said Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa. “Americans see so much money being spent, and they’re going to wonder why on earth are we supporting additional spending on other projects that may or may not be worthy.”