WASHINGTON — Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby appeared to soften a little Tuesday on a potential return of earmarks in spending bills this year, after saying last week his Republican colleagues probably wouldn't allow it.
The Alabama Republican said that despite the Senate GOP Conference vote last year in favor of a permanent ban on the practice, he thinks there's an argument to be made for a reversal.
"I never said that I was against earmarks," Shelby said. "I think we gave that power to the president and the president said he would like to give it back to us."
During a January 2018 meeting on immigration policy, President Donald Trump told a bipartisan group of lawmakers that he wouldn't oppose a restoration of earmarks, which might facilitate legislative deal-making.
"You know our system lends itself to not getting things done. And I hear so much about earmarks, the old earmark system, how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks," Trump said. "But maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks."
After Trump's comment, some in the room laughed, while other lawmakers shouted "yes" or "no."
The practice of inserting line items in spending bills and other legislation for lawmakers' home states and districts has been effectively barred since 2011, after lawmakers in both chambers imposed moratoriums — a response to several "pay-to-play" lobbying scandals in prior years.
Shelby said earmarking, which lawmakers sometimes call "congressionally directed spending," could be brought back under the right circumstances.
"Earmarks have become a pejorative term. But directed appropriations, where they're meritorious, I think that's a right Congress has had under the Constitution and shouldn't give up," Shelby said. "But we'll see what happens."
House Democrats have been talking about a return to earmarking in some form for the past few weeks.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat, has been meeting with freshmen and at-risk Democrats to talk through how the process would work and listen to any concerns they have.
A House Democratic aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Tuesday that they expect more discussions this week on "community project funding" before making a decision.
"Every discussion about community project funding has focused on a limited process that would help meet important local needs while adhering to the highest standards for accountability, effectiveness, and transparency," the aide said.
Part of the equation for the House has been what the Senate's response would be, because if only one chamber revives earmarks in fiscal 2021 appropriations bills it could be extremely difficult to get them enacted. Last week House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer hinted he'd had some preliminary discussions with Republicans, including in the Senate, and said he'd be surprised if the Senate GOP ban was truly "permanent."
Shelby would likely face a tough time persuading his GOP colleagues to reverse their prohibition, after the ban was adopted last year on a 28-12 vote. But he said it wasn't out of the question.
"Some people would never want to revisit it. But I think a lot of people would believe, as I've said, that we gave up a lot of power that's given to us under the Constitution," he said.