Five takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks

Five takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks
© Greg Nash

Earmarks are back in full force as lawmakers prepare for a massive infrastructure package and look to sweeten the appropriations process this year for the first time in more than a decade. 

Under the new reforms House Democrats established to return earmarks this year, all requests must be posted publicly for review with lawmakers providing justification and certifying they don’t have any personal financial stake. 

While both parties in the House decided to move forward with what they’re calling “community project funding,” lawmakers across the Capitol are more divided on the issue. Senate Democrats have outlined a similar path forward for returning earmarks, but Senate Republicans technically upheld their own ban last month.


Here are five takeaways from the hundreds of earmark requests submitted so far. 

Front-line members in competitive districts are taking advantage 

All but a handful of the Democrats and Republicans representing swing districts have filed for earmarked funding, an indication the most vulnerable lawmakers are betting that bringing home the bacon will help them win reelection.

It also shows how members of both parties filing for earmarks reduces the potency of attack ads alleging wasteful spending. 

Just five of the 21 Republicans on Democrats’ target list abstained from submitting funding requests, along with only one Democrat on the GOP’s list. 

Most of the funding requests from vulnerable members are unlikely to be controversial. Rep. David ValadaoDavid Goncalves ValadaoProgressives nearly tank House Democrats' Capitol security bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate path uncertain after House approves Jan. 6 panel Five takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks MORE (R-Calif.), for example, requested $1 million for a police and fire department dispatch center and $1.2 million to expand a food bank, while Rep. Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerThe Memo: Democratic tensions will only get worse as left loses patience Five takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks Lawmakers say companies need to play key role in sustainability MORE (D-Va.) asked for $1 million for a substance abuse treatment center. 

But at least one funding request from a front-line Democrat prompted a conservative group to mock what it sees as a way to “flush money down the toilet”: Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) is seeking $400,000 to install restrooms at three hike-and-bike trails in McAllen. 



Leaders of both parties are on board and filing earmark requests of their own 

The top three House Democratic leaders — Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals Senate investigation of insurrection falls short Ocasio-Cortez: 'Old way of politics' influences Manchin's thinking MORE (Calif.), Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerPelosi signals no further action against Omar Overnight Energy: EPA to reconsider Trump decision not to tighten soot standards | Interior proposes withdrawal of Trump rule that would allow drillers to pay less | EPA reverses Trump guidance it said weakened 'forever chemicals' regulations Progressives rally behind Omar while accusing her critics of bias MORE (Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) — all filed requests for projects back in their districts.

Hoyer has long been a proponent of restoring earmarks with transparency reforms, arguing that it ensures Congress doesn’t cede the power of the purse to the executive branch. 

Hoyer’s funding requests include $5.1 million for the Prince George’s County Health Department to create a school-based telehealth network and $1.8 million for the county’s fire department to buy water tanks for rural areas.

Pelosi has requested $1 million for a San Francisco food bank to expand its cold storage capacity, as well as $600,000 for an organization that helps long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS.

But of the top three House Republican leaders, only Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseWisconsin state lawmaker compares museum mask policy to Nazi Party Overnight Health Care: Public option plan left out of Biden budget proposal | House Republicans demand congressional probe into COVID-19 origin | Half the total US population have received at least one vaccine dose House Republicans demand congressional probe into COVID-19 origin MORE (La.) has submitted funding requests.

Neither Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyPelosi, leaders seek to squelch Omar controversy with rare joint statement Omar: I wasn't equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries Schumer bemoans number of Republicans who believe Trump will be reinstated: 'A glaring warning' MORE (Calif.) nor GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyNew Israeli government should be a teaching moment for global leadership Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' House Democrats to Schumer: Vote again on Jan. 6 probe MORE (Wyo.) did the same.

Scalise’s requests include about $987,000 for a mobile bus system to provide health screenings and $6 million for a bridge replacement project.


Earmark opponents remain steadfast 

More than 300 of the current 430 House members filed funding requests, but there are still some notable holdouts.

The only Democrat in a competitive district who didn’t submit funding requests was Rep. Katie Porter (Calif.), who’s made a name for herself by championing oversight and government accountability efforts. 

Porter warned her fellow Democrats against reinstating earmarks in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in March.

“Instead of a neutral government agency, individual lawmakers, facing re-election pressures, divert millions of dollars for specific projects, often based in their own districts. Inevitably, this invites waste, fraud and abuse,” she wrote.

“It is disappointing that the House has now gone back and unlocked the door to a system with a history of corruption and backroom deals that waste tax dollars,” Porter wrote. 

House Republicans voted in March to support reinstating earmarks, 102-84, after they first voted in 2011 to ban them. Much of the opposition to lifting the ban came from the conservative House Freedom Caucus. 

Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and other prominent members such as Reps. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanThe tale of the last bipartisan unicorns Sunday shows preview: Biden foreign policy in focus as Dem tensions boil up back home House Judiciary releases McGahn testimony on Trump MORE (Ohio), Chip RoyCharles (Chip) Eugene RoyRoy introduces bill blocking Chinese Communist Party members from buying US land Massie, Greene trash mask violation warnings from House sergeant at arms House rejects GOP effort to roll back chamber's mask mandate MORE (Texas), Marjorie Taylor GreeneMarjorie Taylor GreeneGOP efforts to downplay danger of Capitol riot increase The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says she's meeting with Trump 'soon' in Florida MORE (Ga.) and Scott PerryScott Gordon PerryThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Republicans seek to sink Jan. 6 commission DCCC targets Republicans for touting stimulus bill they voted against Five takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks MORE (Pa.) are not on the list of lawmakers who submitted requests for earmarks. 



Lawmakers push for police reform at the
local level

Bipartisan negotiations are still ongoing over long-stalled police reform legislation, which some lawmakers are trying to resurrect ahead of the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death later this month. 

Some House members are trying to take action in their communities in the meantime, with numerous lawmakers requesting funding for body cameras, training and bolstering mental health responses. 

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) has requested $600,000 for a body camera pilot program for Alexandria’s police department, while Rep. Haley StevensHaley Maria StevensFive takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks Lawmakers emphasize need to bolster tech, education in workforce development Lawmakers say manufacturers are in better position to handle future pandemics MORE (D-Mich.) has asked for more than $250,000 to provide crisis intervention and mental health first aid training to officers across three local police departments and hire mental health clinicians to help respond to crises.

“They are a critical tool to be able to quickly establish what happened in incidents of police misconduct and serious abuse of authority,” Beyer’s office wrote in its funding request. 


A reminder of the past earmark scandals


Republicans established the earmark ban in 2011 in response to a series of wasteful spending scandals by members of Congress. 

Among them was Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden suspends Arctic oil leases issued under Trump |  Experts warn US needs to better prepare for hurricane season | Progressives set sights on Civilian Climate Corps Overnight Energy: Biden admin backs Trump approval of major Alaska drilling project | Senate Republicans pitch 8 billion for infrastructure | EPA to revise Trump rule limiting state authority to block pipelines Biden signs bill to help Alaska cruise industry MORE (R-Alaska) and his state’s congressional delegation securing funding for the so-called bridges to nowhere, including one that would have connected a tiny island with the town of Ketchikan. 

Republicans later moved to eliminate a requirement that $442 million had to be spent on the two Alaska bridge projects amid backlash over what was viewed as excessive spending.

Young, who is the House’s most senior member, is now back requesting additional earmarks.

So far he has requested a series of funding for transportation projects as well as other initiatives like $750,000 to study watershed ecosystem support for salmon and $500,000 to create new housing for homeless youth.