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Democrats Want To Bring Earmarks Back As Way To Break Gridlock In Congress

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., supports bringing earmarks back with limits.
J. Scott Applewhite
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., supports bringing earmarks back with limits.

When earmarks were a regular feature of congressional business, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., said Democrats and Republicans were able to cut more deals and pass more bills with bipartisan support.

"This used to be time where everybody was 'Hallelujah,' I mean Republicans, Democrats, dancing, kissing. This is the time to be saved," he recalled at a congressional hearing this year in regard to legislation such as the highway bill.

Cleaver served on the bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress that Democrats established after they won control of the House of Representatives in 2018. One of the conclusions issued in the committee's final report released in October: Bring back earmarks. (The committee ditched the term "earmark" for a new "Community-Focused Grant Program.")

The committee's recommendations were weighed after hearing testimony from advocates such as the Brookings Institution's John Hudak, who has long argued the earmark ban overcorrected the problem. Then-Speaker John Boehner instituted the ban in 2011, but the practice had been under scrutiny for years following a series of spending scandals in the mid-2000s. Democrats overhauled the process when they controlled the House from 2007 to 2010, but they did not ban them.

"Earmarks were painted as a coven for corruption, a practice reserved for the funding of needless projects to benefit the friends, supporters and donors of members of Congress. Much of this was hyperbole, as earmarking was only abused by a handful of members in the past," Hudak told the committee.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., is one of the leading advocates to reinstate earmarks but with stricter limits and more transparency. He argues the ban didn't stop earmarks; it just transferred spending power from Congress, where it constitutionally belongs, to the executive branch, where it doesn't.

"My belief is that members of Congress elected from 435 districts around the country know, frankly, better than those who may be in Washington what their districts need," he told the House Rules Committee in October.

In the past decade, both parties have attempted and failed to reinstate earmarks primarily due to concerns about how it would play politically. Currently, there is broad support for it among House Democratic leaders, including Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., and incoming House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. "It is a dynamic environment, and I think we are in a better position now to move forward in this area," DeLauro told NPR.

Steve Ellis runs Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group that helped expose earmark abuses. "House Democrats can push as much as they want, but they're going to have to have a dance partner in the Senate and they're going to have to have a dance partner with Republicans," he said, "It's one of these things where it just won't stand politically and optically if they don't all jump together."

Senate Republicans voted to ban earmarks permanently in their internal party rules just last year, but control of the Senate won't be clear until after a pair of Georgia special elections in early January. Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a longtime appropriator, made it clear the Senate is not currently rushing to join with House Democrats. "I don't think senators are thinking about this much until it's clear what the House really intends to do," he said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, supports bringing back earmarks and said, in private, the idea is quite popular. "Oh yes, there's very quiet support for it among Republicans. There will be some opposed, but they don't have to have earmarks if they don't like them."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both appropriators who have embraced earmarks in the past, haven't yet taken a position on this round to revive them.

Former President Barack Obama opposed earmarks, famously pledging to veto any bill that came to his desk that included them. President-elect Joe Biden also hasn't weighed in, but Biden says he wants to bring Republicans and Democrats together, and advocates say earmarks is one way to do it.

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Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.