Biden and the Democrats have big goals for the bill, including beginning to reverse decades of racial discrimination in transportation policy. Senior Democratic senators are also pushing to include the temporary family-friendly economic aid in the Rescue Plan and make those provisions permanent in the infrastructure bill. Getting Republican buy-in for that vision is definitely an iffy proposition. However, earmarks can provide real sweeteners in the deal, and senior Democrats are already talking to Republicans about what projects they would like to include.
One of these senior Democrats is Rep. Peter DeFazio from Oregon, who is also chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “I never understood why the Republicans did away with [earmarks],” DeFazio told the Post. “If you’re talking about transportation money, you can give all the money to your state bureaucrats in the state capital, or you can give all the money to the secretary of transportation.” He continued: “Members of Congress are a lot more in touch with the specific needs in their districts, things that are often ignored by the state capital or Washington.” That’s always been the idea behind them, sort of the whole idea of having a House of Representatives looking out directly for their district.
A decade ago, Republicans banned them after a lot of bad press for abuse of the process, a solution that didn’t really get at the real problem of corruption among members of Congress. Democrats promise that the practice will be reformed, with more transparency and restrictions on how the money is spent. Members will have to publicly declare that they have no personal financial interest in the projects for which they’re requesting funding, and demonstrate support from local officials. The money cannot go to private, for-profit entities and the total pot of earmarks will be limited to just 1% of the overall funds in a bill.
The House Appropriations Committee is going to start taking requests for earmarks by the end of March in hopes of securing some early buy-in for the infrastructure bill from Republicans. DeFazio says that he’s going to approach the process in good faith, and won’t use them as weapons the way some previous committee chairs have, stripping the projects of members who don’t vote for overall funding bills out of legislation in conference with the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might not be in agreement with that declaration from DeFazio based on how Republicans have been behaving over the Rescue Plan. “Vote no and take the dough,” she scoffed about Republicans, who unanimously opposed the bill. “You see already some of them claiming, ‘Oh, this is a good thing’ or ‘That is a good thing,’ but they couldn’t give it a vote,” Pelosi told reporters when Biden signed the bill.
No one is taking for granted Republican support for this. Sen. Ben Cardin, a senior member of the Senate committee that will draft the bill, was picked up on a hot C-SPAN mic last week telling Treasury Secretary Pete Buttigieg that using budget reconciliation is definitely on the table for the bill. “Ultimately it’s going to be put together similar” to the Rescue Plan, Cardin was heard to say, and that Democrats will “most likely have to use reconciliation,” because Republicans will only “meet with you to a point.” Buttigieg, seemingly speaking for Biden, replied that he was “pretty process-agnostic. We just want it to work, and get through.” Which will have all the Republicans screaming about bipartisanship as they continue to trash a proposal that isn’t even in ink yet.
McConnell is already calling it a “Trojan horse” and attacking it. “My suspicion is they will try to jam everything they can into that bill and call it an infrastructure bill,” he told reporters last week. Since Biden is eyeing tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy to help fund the infrastructure bill, it seems extremely likely earmarks aren’t going to be enough to bring Republicans along.
But Biden doesn’t seem terribly concerned about Republican votes on his plan to reverse some of Trump’s tax cuts for people earning above $400,000 annually, with a “small to significant tax increase.” As for Republican support for it? “Oh, I may not get it,” he said. “But I’ll get the Democratic votes for a tax increase.” That’s true if it’s funding major infrastructure projects for their states.