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This year’s NDAA will include revamped earmarks

BY CONNOR O’BRIEN | 06/14/2021 04:44 PM EDT

House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told POLITICO in May that his panel will have some form of earmarks in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act. | Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

The House and Senate Armed Services committees plan to revive the process allowing lawmakers to request funding for local pet projects, commonly known as earmarking, in upcoming defense policy legislation.

The move by both panelsto accept project requests from lawmakers in the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act — albeit under new limited guidelines — marks the return of earmarking to the defense policy bill after a decade-long moratorium.

Why it’s happening: The Armed Services panels are following in the footsteps of House and Senate appropriators, who agreed this year to revive the spending practice that had been banned amid charges of abuse.

House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told POLITICO in May that his panel “will have some form of earmarks” in its version of the NDAA.

“We’re trying to make that work,” Smith said at the time. “It’s going to be limited according to the current rules. We’ll follow some guidance from the appropriators.”

Earmarking is most common on the dozen annual appropriations bills that allocate federal dollars, while the NDAA only authorizes funding. But lawmakers have elected to include member earmarks in policy bills such as the major defense and transportation bills.

The Armed Services committees had previously incorporated earmarks into the defense bill before the practice was quashed in the early 2010s. Individual lawmaker requests were last included in the fiscal 2011 defense bill.

Earmark state of play: Both Armed Services panels are following the guidance laid out by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees for revived earmarks, which limits the eligible accounts where lawmakers can seek funding and sets up a potential mismatch between the competing defense policy bills.

House Armed Services Democratic spokesperson Monica Matoush said all House members are permitted to make up to 10 requests for community project funding — the House term for the reformed earmarks — through Tuesday.

Following the guardrails set up by the House Appropriations Committee, lawmakers can submit earmarks only for research and development accounts for the military services and Pentagon as well as military construction projects for the active-duty services, Guard, Reserve and defense-wide accounts in the NDAA.

A House aide added that military construction projects must be submitted to both the Appropriations and Armed Services panels because “MILCON projects must be both authorized and appropriated.”

Senate Armed Services Democratic spokesperson Cole Stevens said the panel will follow the guidance laid out by the upper chamber’s Appropriations Committee. Led by Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate has sworn off earmarks in its annual defense spending bill but has endorsed member funding requests for military construction projects. As a result, the Senate NDAA will include only military construction earmarks.

The differing approaches to earmarking, and how to reconcile them, could be a challenge for Armed Services leaders and staff as they work to iron out a compromise defense policy bill this year.

Both Democrats and Republicans have signed onto the revamped spending process in the House. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have upheld their own ban on earmarks, though it isn’t binding and several GOP senators have vowed to request project funding despite the party’s moratorium.

Limited eligibility: The significantly scaled back process, including what programs qualify for earmarks, could curb some lawmakers’ interest in submitting project requests in the NDAA.

In addition to the small number of eligible accounts, the House and Senate have banned earmarks to for-profit entities — among other guidelines meant to address concerns about abuse — essentially ruling out funding that could benefit large defense companies.

Earmarks for defense spending legislation have attracted scant interest in the appropriations process. The House Appropriations Committee received just 15 requests totaling $32 million in defense project requests out of nearly 2,900 funding requests made under the new guidelines. A half dozen House lawmakers also submitted $165 million in military construction funding requests.

Still, the revamped earmark process doesn’t foreclose the Armed Services committees, like appropriators, from pushing more money for major weapons programs that the earmark process doesn’t touch.

Already, defense-oriented lawmakers have expressed an interest in boosting funding for Navy shipbuilding efforts to continue to increase the size of the fleet, block the retirement of dozens of ships and planes the Pentagon proposed as a money-saving measure, and hike money for other procurement efforts.

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