AASHTO Journal

Lawmakers Consider Ways to Restore Congressionally Directed Project Earmarks

Some leading lawmakers are calling for a return to the practice of letting members of Congress sponsor targeted infrastructure project spending, or earmarks, as a way to enhance congressional control over how the money is spent.

The House Rules Committee in a Jan. 17 hearing heard Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., say he would support restoration of the member-directed appropriations.

Asked specifically by Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, if Hoyer thought Congress could use earmarks in a potential infrastructure investment bill this year, Hoyer said he would support the approval for earmarks whenever the Rules Committee could act to allow them.

Both chambers of Congress halted use of congressionally targeted project funding in 2011, after reports of some high-cost earmarks going to projects of questionable value.

shuster@rules.jpg Shuster

However, lawmakers have since said they did not like ceding the power to administration officials to decide which specific projects to fund, and some say banning earmarks amounted to Congress giving up some of its constitutional power of the purse.

A number of lawmakers and other observers have also said ending earmarks has made it harder for Congress to pass legislation, including measures to authorize infrastructure projects.

President Trump recently made that argument when he told members of Congress they should bring back earmarks as a way to spur lawmakers to work together.

While many lawmakers want to restore earmarks, they also insist that any return to member-directed spending must come with a better system of accountability than in the past, such as by publicly disclosing the earmarks in advance and making the case for their benefits.

For instance, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., argued for Congress "taking back our constitutional authority, which I think is so, so important."

But, Shuster added: "I want to be clear. I do not support going back to the old system . . . We have to go forward, and that means greater transparency and more accountability."

Shuster also addressed fiscal conservatives, saying a return to earmarks "is not a spending issue. The ban hasn't saved a penny. Continuing a ban doesn't mean we will be spending any less. This is purely a question of who exactly is making our spending decisions."

The committee held a second day of the hearings on Jan. 18, where witnesses included James Bass, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation.

While he did not take a position on preferring congressional earmarks to fund projects over administration-controlled discretionary grants, Bass said that under three USDOT discretionary grant programs for surface transportation Texas has received just 1.5 percent of total awards.

Bass said that whether Congress retains the current system of letting the administration decide which projects to award grant funds or returns to making congressionally directed project awards, he recommended that the government publish more detail in advance on how it will award the funds, and more information afterward on how and why it scored both winners and losers in the grants competition and review whether funds are allocated fairly.

Questions regarding this article may be directed to editor@aashtojournal.org.

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