McConnell Earmark Ban Support Could Mean Even Less for Transpo

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(Washington, DC -- Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation) State and local transportation planners may have had an uneasy sleep last night after hearing that the Senate's top-ranking Republican is backing a ban on earmark spending in Congress.

The impact of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell's (KY) pledge is still unclear. Senate Republicans are set to vote on a voluntary moratorium on pet-project spending on Tuesday. But McConnell's reversal from earmark champion to reluctant opponent is sure to throw uncertainty into hundreds of transportation projects around the country.

House Republicans have already pledged to forgo earmarks in spending bills that leave the chamber. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumptive next speaker of the House, has said the GOP majority will stick to the pledge in the next Congress. Now that Senate Republicans may follow suit, money for individual projects could become stickier business in the already murky legislative process.

But Democrats have made no such pledge and instead have defended the importance of earmarks to steering funding to projects in their states. Many Republicans make the same arguments but appear to have been overwhelmed by voters' apparent anger over government spending and the success of anti-earmark Tea Party candidates and other conservatives in the recent midterm elections.

So what will be the impact on transportation projects in the near term? Unclear. Many local papers are already worrying aloud that more cutbacks on earmarks could spell doom for critical local projects. But that may not necessarily be the case. Earmarks have many definitions, but the most common one refers to projects not requested by the White House or a federal agency but that make it into a bill anyway at the request of individual lawmakers. Even if that brand of earmark is avoided by some lawmakers, it would be unlikely to prevent Congress from spending an equal amount of money in a less defined way, leaving specific programming decisions up to federal agencies.

The House in July passed a $70 billion transportation and housing funding bill that contained some 560 earmarks, many for local transit and infrastructure projects. But the Senate has yet to act on the bill. In fact, non-stimulus transportation spending is likely to get wrapped up in a much larger "omnibus" spending bill likely to pass Congress in the next few months. Whether the bill contains any earmarks, and who has requested them, is an open question.

And what about the medium and long term? Earmark spending is a time-honored, if unseemly, practice in a Congress that derives it's power primarily by controlling the nation's purse strings. Will Republicans return to earmarking when the economy improves and there is less political pressure around spending?

We'll know a little more after Senate Republicans vote on the earmark moratorium Tuesday.