A bridge to nowhere, anyone? Congress weighs return of earmarks to ease gridlock in 2021

WASHINGTON – Congressional earmarks, once symbols of political corruption and profligate spending, could be primed for a comeback on Capitol Hill a decade after they were eliminated.Key leaders on Capitol Hill say it’s time to end the moratorium provided that rules requiring transparency ensure only legitimate projects make the cut. They also say the return of earmarks would help build public support for Congress to pass more bills, including a COVID-19 stimulus package or a massive infrastructure bill, if they know there’s something that would benefit them directly.“It gives people the sense that (Congress) does in fact focus on them,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told USA TODAY in a phone interview last week. “After all, every district sends a lot of tax money and (this) sends a lot back for specific projects.”Earmarks – funding for specific projects usually inserted into broad spending bills – were eliminated in 2011 by Republicans who had just recaptured the House riding a wave of Tea Party support from voters insisting the federal government tighten its purse strings.That was several years after earmarks were at the center of corruption probes involving several lobbyists, lawmakers and congressional aides.In all, more than a dozen people were convicted amid a scandal that began in the early 2000s and ended the political career of GOP congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, who admitted taking bribes from lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Native American tribes had hired Abramoff who had promised he could use his connections in the GOP-led Congress to secure earmarks that tribal leaders wanted.President-elect Joe Biden calls on Congress to approve ‘robust’ COVID-19 stimulus planA separate earmarking scandal led to the bribery-related conviction in 2005 of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., who was caught steering work to favored military contractors.Other earmarks drew scorn for carrying enormous price tags with seemingly little public benefit, such as the “bridge to nowhere” sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. In 2005, Young directed $231 million in an earmark to fund a bridge connecting Ketchikan, Alaska, to Gravina Island that would serve relatively few residents given the enormous price tag, a move he later withdrew after withering public criticism.In response, the House reformed its rules to require that the sponsor of every earmark must be made public.Those earmarks, officially referred to as “congressionally directed spending,” became reviled by conservative Republicans as the root of expanding budget deficits and surging national debt. In 2014, then-Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., called them “the gateway drug to Washington’s spending addiction.” Now it appears there’s enough of a groundswell to bring them back – under certain conditions: Each earmark’s sponsor must be identified; no private sector entity can be a recipient; and members cannot have a financial interest in the project the federal aid is benefitting.The bipartisan Hous




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