How earmark ban is already changing Capitol Hill
In many ways, the Republicans' voluntary two-year earmark ban is limited in scope. But it's already undermining Congress's spending 'cardinals' and changing how lobbyists lobby Capitol Hill.
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The Republican earmark ban is expected to have a greater impact in the House, where Republicans will hold the majority next year. For example, House spending committees will be able to spend more time on oversight of spending, rather than sorting through thousands of demands for earmarks.
“We’re already hearing talk about holding more oversight hearings,” says Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “When the staff does not have to sort through 30,000 earmark requests, they have more time to address oversight issues. Earmarks accounted for a relatively small amount of money but took up an inordinate amount of committee time.”
On the Senate side, Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, a longtime supporter of earmarking practices, flipped his position after the 2010 campaign, and led his caucus to vote to ban the practice for two years. He is a calling for an earmark ban that applies to the Senate as a whole, but majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada opposes that move.
Lobbyists shift gears
The Washington lobby community, which thrived on the surge of earmarking in the 1990s, also opposed moves to end the practice, but is adapting to the changes. “Banning earmarks is absolutely the wrong move,” says David Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists in Washington. “These members of Congress are elected to protect their districts."
"How can a faceless bureaucrat know what’s best for northern Virginia?” he asks, referring to the fact that, without earmarks, the individual federal agencies (such as the Department of Education or Agriculture) will have full authority to decide how to spend the money allocated to them.
Anticipating a shift away from congressional earmarking, lobbyists are already changing strategy, he adds. Instead of promising their clients that they will get help from Congress to pass earmarks, lobbyists will shift to lobbying the executive branch (which includes all federal agencies) to help clients win competitive grants.
“The same amount of money that went to earmarks will go to different things,” he adds. "Our aim will be to find those competitive grants for our clients."