WASHINGTON — The House Republicans’ one-year moratorium on earmarks this year may affect funding decisions that stretch far beyond their pledge’s expiration date, scratching out many transportation projects that two Minnesota Republicans might have received over the next five years.
Some GOP members have grumbled privately about the moratorium decision, not just because they’ll lose out but because it puts them in a difficult spot politically in terms of getting funding for their districts. Some, too, have said privately that they had not anticipated that the current moratorium would affect long-range funding decisions beyond this year’s spending, such as the long-term surface transportation bill.
Here’s how the sitution developed.
Almost every year the House considers such multi-year authorizations as the Farm Bill, federal nutrition assistance (food stamps and school lunches) or, in this case, the surface transportation bill.
The $500 billion surface transportation bill incorporates projects from roads to bridges to mass transit — and falls under the jurisdiction of Democrat Jim Oberstar’s Transportation Committee.
The measure is currently being hindered by concerns about how to pay for about $200 billion of it. Insiders said if there’s action, it’s likeliest to come during the lame duck session after the election.
A preview of things to come
Later this month, that committee will take up a smaller water resources bill, covering ports, locks and other water-based infrastructure that originally had earmark requests from 120 Republicans.
Oberstar sent a letter to 116 of them (from whom he said he hadn’t yet heard) demanding to know whether or not they wanted to keep their funding requests. A similar letter is planned for the surface transportation bill.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Oberstar said in a blistering statement accompanying the letter (PDF). “You’re either for funding important projects in your district or you’re not,” adding that “it’s interesting to note that the moratorium the Republican leadership adopted only lasts until after this fall’s election.”
House Transportation Committee spokeswoman Mary Kerr said the committee will not be releasing the list of members receiving the letter or the precise projects they requested. A call-’round to Minnesota’s Republican lawmakers showed no requests in the water bill.
However, two of them — Reps. Michele Bachmann and Erik Paulsen — did submit requests for the surface transportation bill, both of which have now been withdrawn.
A Kline spokesman said he had nothing to pull back.
“For the fourth consecutive year Mr. Kline did not request earmarks,” Kline spokesman Troy Young said.
The political pratfall of a principled position
The earmark moratorium was much lauded by Republicans when it passed — exactly one day after Democrats passed their own moratorium on earmarks for for-profit companies.
“Federal spending is out of control and the American people know it,” House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence said at the time. “Earmarks have become emblematic of everything that is wrong with spending here in Washington D.C.”
Pence said the decision came after a “marathon” discussion in the House Republican caucus, reached via voice vote.
Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who studies Congress and the earmarking process, said she doesn’t blame rank-and-file House Republicans for being frustrated with leadership.
As a result, she said, Republicans including Paulsen and Bachmann, will have to explain why it was OK to ask for these earmarks in the first place, but now they’re taking a principled stand against them.
“The benefit for Republicans as a party is probably smaller than the losses for individual Republicans who can’t bring back roads and bridges for their districts,” Pearson said.
“It does not make sense to my students,” Pearson said, “and I’ve explained it at length, so I can’t see how it makes sense to voters.”