Anti-Earmark Republicans Looking For Ways Around Earmark Ban

Just weeks after voting for a broad ban on earmarks, Republicans are looking for ways to get money to their districts without calling it an "earmark."

Only weeks after approving a ban on earmarks for the coming session of Congress, House and Senate Republicans are looking for ways around the ban to get money back to their districts:

After agreeing to kill earmarks, some of the most conservative GOP lawmakers are already starting to ask themselves: What have we done?

Indeed, many Republicans are now worried that the bridges in their districts won’t be fixed, the tariff relief to the local chemical company isn’t coming and the water systems might not be built without a little direction from Congress.

So some Republicans are discussing exemptions to the earmark ban, allowing transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water projects. While transportation earmarks are probably the most notorious — think “Bridge to Nowhere” — there is talk about tweaking the very definition of “earmark.”

“It’s like what beauty is,” said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.). “Everyone knows what a bridge to nowhere is, or an airport that lands no airplanes, or a statue to you — everyone knows that’s bad. It’s easy to say what an earmark isn’t, rather than what an earmark is.”

Or, as America’s 42nd President put it:

It’s rank hypocrisy, really. First, Republicans try to claim their fiscal conservative bona fides with a purely symbolic and utterly pointless ban on earmarking. Then, after it passes, they turn around and redefine what an “earmark” is so that they can continue funneling money to their districts. It stands as proof not only of their own phoniness, but also of the fact that “earmarking” is part and parcel of a large government that spends a lot of money. No matter how you try to ban it, legislators will always find a way to get money and government to their district and their supporters. If you want it to stop, you have to stop it at the source, and that’s in the Federal Budget.

What’s even more ironic about the spectacle of anti-earmark Republicans like Michelle Bachmann trying to find a way around their own earmark ban is the fact that, now, many of them are starting to realize that the ban itself may not have been a good idea:

Conservatives also are frightened that they’ve ceded too much control to the executive branch, leaving local highway and water project decisions to bureaucrats. Bachmann, a favorite among tea partiers, said that Article I of the Constitution gives Congress “the authority to make discriminatory decisions, which means proactive decisions about which roads are built.”

That’s a point that some of us were making before the GOP went for symbolism over substance and voted for the earmark ban:

If Congress weren’t earmarking the appropriations bills, then all of the decisions about where the money would go would be left to the Executive Branch. It’s fairly easy to see what would happen then. The allocation of money by the Executive Branch would become a bargaining tool by which the President would influence Congressmen and Senators to support legislation favored by the White House. Giving the White House power to decide where the money allocated to, say, the Transportation Department goes won’t reduce the budget of the Transportation Department, it will just make the Presidency more powerful.

More broadly, it seems clear that Republicans didn’t think about what they were doing when they enacted a braoad earmark ban:

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a tea party favorite who lost out on his bid to chair the House Appropriations Committee, thinks his party may have overreached.

“Let’s look at transportation,” he said Wednesday. “How do you handle that without earmarks, since that’s a heavily earmarked bill? How do you handle a Corps of Engineers project? I think, right now, we go through a period where we have gone one step further than we meant to go, and there are some unintended consequences.”

And one of those unintended consequences is that the earmark ban is revealing quite starkly the hypocrisy of some members of Congress. That may actually be a good thing.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. sam says:

    And the Tea Party faithful looked from teapig to GOPman and back again, and could not tell the difference.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    They know the words but not the music.

  3. tom p says:

    I am shocked…SHOCKED!

  4. tom p says:

    >”More broadly, it seems clear that Republicans didn’t think.”

    that goes for a whole lot of things…

  5. anjin-san says:

    Bachmann is full of it? Damn, that is news…

  6. Austin says:

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.