WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he expects congressional earmarks will be revived and insisted senior Republican Party members support the return of congressionally directed spending.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Reid argued that the prohibition on earmarks was a mistake that tipped the balance of power away from the legislative branch and toward the president. He said he wants the ability to approve specific spending projects to be put back under control of Congress.
Reid said top House Republicans have told him they support earmarks and would like to see the practice return. He said those he's spoken to include "a very senior member of the House Republican caucus." Reid wouldn't name names, but said that the lawmaker is "still there" -- meaning it's likely not Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.)
"I have never backed down from my support of congressionally directed spending," Reid said. "That's our constitutional obligation and duty. I do not believe that the White House should make all these decisions. I am proud of all the earmarks I have gotten for the state of Nevada. They'll come back -- it's only a question of time because that's our constitutional obligation."
In recent months, other lawmakers have argued these same points, suggesting that Congress may be warming up to a return to the practice it banned several years ago. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he has talked about an earmark revival with the White House and wants to see it happen. Freshmen Republicans in the House have petitioned Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to reconsider his opposition.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) would be the most likely GOP senator to take over the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee if the GOP wins control of the Senate in this year's elections, and has been a longtime supporter of earmarks. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), too, only bowed to the pressure to ban earmarks under tremendous strain.
Earmarks were banned in reaction to the perceived abuse of the process by Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas), who rewarded and punished members of his own party to keep them in line, and largely shut Democrats out of the process. But without projects to dangle before members, congressional leaders have found the institution much more difficult to govern. Banning earmarks, it turned out, made Washington more dysfunctional.
And, as a matter of principle, the right to direct spending is indeed given to Congress in Article I of the Constitution.
Still, restoring earmarks would be a difficult process. And if Reid wants to see earmarks return, he will have to convince members of his own party. It was, after all, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee who first adopted a ban on earmarks for corporations in March 2010 (Senate Democrats eliminated earmarks in 2011). Recently, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a rising star in the party, said she opposed bringing back earmarks.
House Republicans aren't likely to make a change soon, either. They instituted a full earmark ban in 2010. And Boehner has shown no appetite to move away from that position.
The conservative wing, meanwhile, has little interest in seeing earmarks return.
"Harry Reid has been spending too much time hanging out with lobbyists at the Ritz here in D.C. and not enough time meeting with actual voters in both parties who revile and despise the practice," said Barney Keller, a spokesman for the conservative Club for Growth.