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February 12, 2016

An Earmark Revival? ‘Suggestion’ Earns Bipartisan Praise

House Republican Conference

Cole. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House Rules Committee – where the majority party always wins and the votes always split along party lines – was the setting Monday evening for a momentary bipartisan call to bring back earmarks as a way to lubricate passage of transportation bills.

Earmarks – money in authorization or appropriations bills that was targeted to benefit a specific congressional district or a particular project – were banned by the House in 2011.

During debate on the rule for the bill authorizing federal highway and transit programs through next May, Rep. Jim McGovern, D- Mass., and Rep. Tom Cole, R – Okla., agreed that the whole business of transportation funding would go so much easier if House members could just get their earmarks back.

McGovern told the Republicans on the committee and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Rep. Bill Shuster, who was at the Rules meeting, that he’d served on the Transportation Committee under former chairman Rep. Bud Shuster, father of the current chairman.

Under Bud Shuster, who retired in 2001. the House overwhelmingly passed bipartisan transportation bills.

“This is just a suggestion, but if you guys are still in the majority after November – I pray that you’re not, but in case you are — you might want to revisit this issue of earmarking,” McGovern told Shuster and the GOP members.

“Because I think one of the reasons why we were able to pass a transportation bill, when your dad was the chairman, overwhelmingly…. was because every member had some skin in the game. They actually were able to see where this funding would go in their district and how it would make a difference,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.

McGovern acknowledged that earmarks are “not fashionable,” but “in thinking of ways to come to a long-term solution to get people to buy in,” earmarks may be worth resurrecting.

Cole told McGovern, “Your political analysis is absolutely correct. Earmarking would be helpful here…. I know my district, frankly, better” than officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Using federal money from an earmark, Cole recalled, “We could put in an overpass where five people had died” in a highway accident in his district. “And the inability to do that is just a sad consequence of politicizing the earmark process….”

When Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R- Texas dissented, telling Cole that “the states may be better arbiters of what they need than us here at the federal level,” Cole replied that the earmarks he’d gotten were in fact requested by Oklahoma transportation officials.

Cole said states should be allowed to spend Highway Trust Fund money in their states as they think best. States that wanted to spend federal dollars on bike trails could do that, but states that wanted to spend the money only on roads and highways could do that as well.

However the idea of devolution of highway money to the states went nowhere as the Rules Committee took no action on Oklahoma Republican James Lankford’s pilot proposal to essentially allow states to opt out of federal highway funding and the conditions that come with it.

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  1. Slammy

    July 16, 2014
    3:02 p.m.

    “states may be better arbiters of what they need than us here at the federal level”

    Maybe so, but when you ask a state dot to do something that is not in their multi-year plans, the answer is usually, we would like to but our hands are tied by the Feds

  2. Jeff Purdie

    July 24, 2014
    12:28 p.m.

    Earmarks, when managed with consultation among local and state transportation leadership, including transportation planners, can be an efficient means to bring about long term transportation bills at the federal level. Returning to the mode of vesting interest among elected officials at the federal level, and including a means test for each project under consideration, is the essence of political purpose. The notion that states would consider “removing” themselves from federal participation is laughable. We are a “united” states, not divided….try as some elected officials might, to create fifedomes. InTERstate commerce and travel is a vital part of our national economy. The federal highway program and interstate commerce laws, are, have been, and will continue to be the nexus through which our country maintains an efficient and safe surface transportation infrastructure system. Earmarks have their place, they should be reinstituted within the arena of transportation policy decision making.

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