House

Five takeaways on the House’s return to budget earmarks

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 Valadao (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 Spanberger (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 Pelosi (Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (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 Scalise (La.) has submitted funding requests.

Neither Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) nor GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (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 Jordan (Ohio), Chip Roy (Texas), Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Scott Perry (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 Stevens (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 Young (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. 

Tags Abigail Spanberger Chip Roy congress house budget earmarks advantage police reform scandals democrats republicans steve scalise David Valadao Don Young Haley Stevens Jim Jordan Kevin McCarthy Liz Cheney Marjorie Taylor Greene Nancy Pelosi Scott Perry Steny Hoyer Steve Scalise

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