WASHINGTON — Earmarks are the kind of thing that many members of Congress love — but few are willing to admit it publicly.
To put it bluntly, federal money for special projects such as bridges, dams and research at local universities are easy ways to score points with constituents. Many of those infrastructure projects need to be funded anyway, proponents argue, and who knows what a district needs better than the lawmaker who represents it?
For the leaders on Capitol Hill tasked with shepherding important pieces of legislation, earmarks functioned as carrots they could use to lure support, even if other portions of the bill were disagreeable.
But earmarks eventually became the poster-children for Washington largesse. Under pressure from the public following a series of scandals, including the “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska and the case of Duke Cunningham, the GOP House banned the practice in 2011. Most of the decisions about which individual projects needed to be funded were shifted to the bureaucracy.
That hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from pining for earmarks, especially given Congress’ difficulty moving even the most routine legislation in recent years. And it’s been the Republican argument that the executive branch has taken too much power away from Congress that led to the issue resurfacing last week.
House Speaker Paul Ryan pumped the brakes on a proposal to bring back earmarks during a closed-door meeting after it appeared on the verge of passing. But the Wisconsin Republican promised a public debate on the issue early in 2017. Some Democrats, meanwhile, painted the move as a cynical one less than two weeks after Donald Trump was elected on an anti-Washington message.