Earmarks split Utah’s lawmakers, with Mike Lee and Mitt Romney vowing to seek none

Senate Republicans will vote on the controversial practice on Wednesday.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, walks on Capitol Hill as the Senate works to complete the Democrats' $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, in Washington, Saturday, March 6, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Congress is on the verge of bringing back earmarks, allowing senators and representatives to direct funding to specific projects back home.

The idea is splitting Utah’s all-Republican delegation.

On one side are Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, who vow not to seek any earmarks, potentially leaving millions on the table that could go to Utah cities and counties.

Lee is leading a letter that has the signature of 14 colleagues, including Romney’s. It says, “We will not participate in an inherently wasteful spending practice that is prone to serious abuse.”

On the other side are people like Reps. Chris Stewart and Blake Moore, R-Utah, who argue that Congress has the power of the purse and that elected representatives are often more aware of the needs in their district than those in the federal departments.

“If we can do this in a transparent way and with strong levels of accountability, this is Congress’ role,” Moore said. “We all know our districts better than the executive branch.”

Stewart, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said, “As envisioned by the founders, Congress should decide where to spend taxpayer funds — not unelected bureaucrats.”

The Democrats, who hold a slim majority in the Senate and House, plan to bring back earmarks for the first time in a decade, and the House Republicans voted to do so as well. Senate Republicans plan to hold a vote Wednesday, and Lee has been rallying the opposition.

He came to office in 2011 riding the “tea party” wave, and a core part of that conservative movement was rejecting earmarks because of abuses in which members sought funding for campaign contributors and projects with little national value. Congress banned them his first year in office, and Lee’s views on earmarks haven’t changed through the years.

He called them “one of the most shameful practices in Congress” during a news conference last week organized by Citizens Against Government Waste. He criticized the argument that these spending provisions help spur collaboration in Washington.

“They’ll say that they’re necessary to get things done in the midst of today’s congressional dysfunction, to serve as the industrial lubricant of a sausage-making factory,” Lee said. “It’s true that Congress is weak and dysfunctional today, but earmarks are the exact wrong way for us to go about reclaiming our power of the purse.”

Instead, Lee argues, rank-and-file members need to resist large spending bills negotiated by a few leaders in the House and Senate, which would include earmarks as incentives for members to vote “yes.”

He wants smaller budget bills and robust debates on the Senate floor.

Lee argues that earmarks will “make it impossible to end our broken and unaccountable system of spending.”

For his part, Romney said he’s “proud” to fight to keep the ban on earmarks, saying they are “rife with waste and abuse, and they open the door to excessive spending on unnecessary government projects.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Appropriations chairman, has promised to split the available earmark money, up to 1% of discretionary spending, with Republicans if they choose to seek it.

It will be up to them if they want it,” Leahy, D-Vt., told CQ Roll Call in March. “If they don’t, we’ll just have it on the Democratic side.”

In an attempt to avoid the controversies of the past, which included two lawmakers going to prison, Congress is trying to make the earmark process more transparent.

Each lawmaker could seek only 10 earmarks and would have to certify that they and their immediate families wouldn’t financially benefit from the projects. They would have to post their requests online, and the funding couldn’t go toward a for-profit interest. Most of the requests wold go to local governments.

That’s one reason why Moore is in favor. He’s already gathering potential proposals.

“I know there’s interest,” he said, “from the 10 counties that I represent and other organizations throughout the state.”

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, opposed bringing earmarks back, but he intends to participate anyway.

“He feels that they cause members to spend too much time focusing on obtaining earmarks from a select group of individuals with influence over their distribution, as opposed to working on broader efforts that benefit the entire country through legislation,” said Curtis’ spokeswoman Ally Riding. “However, he still intends to request congressionally directed spending because he doesn’t want Utah to be put at a disadvantage for federal dollars just because he opposes the overall process.”

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, didn’t respond to requests for comment.