WASHINGTON -- Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, is quietly pushing the reinstitution of earmarks as a way of greasing the legislative wheels.
The Illinois Democrat made the case for restoring the ability of Congress to add pet projects to large bills in appearance before a union crowd last week. He also told reporters that he had "talked to the Obama administration" about returning the process.
"I think that what we need to do is have the Obama administration say, 'We are looking for local impact, local input on projects and we will give great weight or at least weight to these recommendations.' And I think that only makes sense. Because, to think that somebody sitting at a desk in Washington, D.C., can appreciate that opportunity down in the Metro East area -- I'm not sure they could," Durbin said, according to a recording of his remarks provided by his office to The Huffington Post.
"It was a tea party reform," Durbin added. "They came in and eliminated it and what they did is take the glue out of a federal transportation bill. That was the glue that held everybody together: Democrats and Republicans working for a common goal. There were abuses for sure, and those abuses can be policed and those abuses can be eliminated with more transparency start to finish.
Listen to the full recording of Durbin's comments on congressional earmarks:
"When we get back to the point where members of Congress are sitting down with a common goal -– let's pass this bill, let's make sure there is enough money in this bill, let's find the sources of revenue necessary for this bill -- you know, it creates a much better and more positive feeling. We've just drifted apart because of this so-called tea party reform."
Durbin is overstating, a bit, the history of the earmark ban. While House Republicans pushed for an earmark ban as part of their austerity plank, President Barack Obama fully embraced the notion that pork items were a gateway to corruption and should be stopped. It was Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee that adopted a ban on earmarks for corporations in March 2010, sending lobbyists scrambling. House Republicans instituted fuller bans thereafter. And while Senate Democrats held out for a bit, they too foreswore the spending mechanism in 2011.
Since then, there have been various moments where lawmakers have either lamented the loss of earmarks or called for their reinstatement (the most ironic being when incoming House GOP freshmen asked their leadership to lift the ban). The call to bring back earmarks also has become a trendy position for politically minded publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, The New Yorker, Bloomberg View, and Mother Jones.
The argument usually echoes Durbin's: Congressional gridlock is so bad that the only way to break through is to give lawmakers more incentives to vote yes -- with bits of funding that would benefit their districts. There is a slightly more nuanced case to be made as well: That by banning earmarks, lawmakers forfeited too much power to the executive branch. Certainly, when you have fiscal conservatives like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) petitioning the Obama administration for funds, you can see how some members would like to put control of the purse more firmly in the hands of congressional leaders.
Still, don't expect earmarks to come roaring back any time soon. Durbin's talk is only talk for the time being. As one Democratic congressional leadership aide told The Huffington Post: "I'm sure there are many people who share that sentiment, but that's just him riffing."
UPDATE: Tuesday, 9 a.m. EDT -- House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is not a fan of an earmark revival, telling Durbin, via Twitter, that the ban will stay in place.
— Speaker John Boehner (@SpeakerBoehner) April 21, 2014