Return of earmarks a boon for members of Congress facing midterm battles

By: and - March 14, 2022 3:35 am

The Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. lit up at night, seen from across the water under a purple evening sky. Getty Images.

WASHINGTON — Vulnerable lawmakers from throughout the country are set to rake in federal cash for home-state projects after a major spending bill included the first round of earmarks in more than a decade.

Members from both political parties began requesting thousands of projects last year when U.S. House and Senate leaders resurrected what’s called “member-directed spending” — resulting in billions of dollars in earmarks spread across Congress.

Leaders also overhauled the process with new oversight mechanisms and guardrails to prevent the type of scandals that plagued the earmarks process — known derisively as pork-barrel spending — in years past.

Based on the flood of celebrations, tweets and press releases this week after the $1.5 trillion government funding bill was released, members are happy with the outcome.

The legislation, which also includes regular government spending through Oct. 1 and aid to Ukraine, is expected to be signed into law by President Joe Biden following Senate passage as early as Thursday.

Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, facing reelection in a very red state this November, secured millions in earmarks for 39 projects.

“I’ve fought for months to make sure the government funding bill reflects Georgia’s priorities, and I’m proud the final package includes strong investments and policies I helped secure that will pour federal resources into our HBCUs and other schools, improve maternal health outcomes, fund key infrastructure improvements at our military bases, and direct federal funding to critical job-creating and economic-bolstering projects across the state,” Warnock said in a statement.

The funding will go to myriad projects, ranging from $200 million for mental health services for children who have survived trauma to $293,000 for the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to provide mentorship, training and technical assistance for Hispanic and Latino-owned businesses.

Warnock narrowly won a special election runoff race in January 2021 by about 93,000 votes and is up for reelection this fall in a state that prior to last year hadn’t elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 2000.

Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, a former astronaut who won a 2020 special election with 51.2% of the vote, secured more than 40 projects in the final government spending bill.

Among the approved projects is funding for facility and equipment upgrades for health centers throughout the state, including $5 million for Mountain Park Health Center and $6 million for Sun Life Family Health Center.

Then there’s $29.3 million for a combat training tank complex at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. And $1.78 million for the Lake Havasu City Jail refurbishment.

Many of Kelly’s approved projects were co-requested with fellow Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

Nevada’s Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, along with fellow Democrat Jacky Rosen, sponsored a $12 million appropriation for the Nevada Cares Campus in Washoe County, a shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

Cortez Masto’s 53 approved projects would also provide $2 million for climate research at The Desert Research Institute and more than $7.5 million to the University of Nevada for facilities and equipment.

Among the University of Nevada projects is an “outpatient dental clinic devoted to patients with advance care needs” and “two mobile clinics to expand care to the medically underserved in the community.”

She said in a statement the funding would make Nevada’s “communities safer, more connected, and better prepared to take advantage of our growing economy.”

Cortez Masto narrowly won her first campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2016 by 27,000 votes and faces a tough campaign heading into the fall.

Warnock, Kelly and Cortez Masto’s reelection prospects are all rated as a “toss up” by the Cook Political Report With Amy Walter.

Frontliners line up

Nearly all the House Democrats on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Frontline” list of members vulnerable to losing to Republicans in the midterms received funding for projects back in their districts.

Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne’s district will get just over $10 million for nine projects. Axne is the only Democrat left among Iowa’s four U.S. House members.

“This money is going to be used to rebuild bridges, to expand childcare centers and affordable housing projects, and so much more,” she said in a statement.

“I’m so glad to know that these projects, which will help the Third District tremendously, will finally come to fruition.”

Unlike their Senate counterparts, who could request funding for as many projects as they wanted, House members were capped at 10 proposals.

Rep. Katie Porter was the only vulnerable House Democrat not to request earmarks for her 45th District in California, writing in an op-ed a year ago that she could not “in good conscience participate in politically motivated earmarking that puts an elected official’s interest over the national interest.”

She argued that even the new system would invite waste, fraud and abuse in how Congress approaches the annual government funding process.

Rebranded earmarks system

The revived system, rebranded “community project funding” or “congressionally directed spending,” requires lawmakers to post their spending requests online, bans the money from going to for-profit entities and is only available for pre-approved federal accounts.

The Government Accountability Office is also required to audit the approved earmarks and submit a report to Congress.

Several Republicans, including a few facing challenging reelection races this year, also declined to request earmarks.

GOP Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, whose chances are rated by the Cook Report as a “toss up,” and Marco Rubio of Florida, who faces a “lean Republican” rating, did not request any earmarks.

Both co-sponsored a bill Montana Republican Steve Daines led last year to permanently ban the practice.

Earmark requests were scattered throughout the Senate Republican Conference.

While the House GOP voted early last year to remove a ban on earmarking from its rules, Senate Republicans opted to leave their “permanent ban” in place. Members who supported a return to earmarking argued that the rule wasn’t binding and there were no real barriers to GOP senators from requesting and receiving earmarks for their states.

52 projects in Missouri

Missouri Republican Roy Blunt, a member of Senate leadership and the Appropriations Committee who is retiring at the end of the year, was one of 16 Senate GOP lawmakers to request earmarks.

He requested 52 projects, including a $13 million appropriation for the Chester Bridge between Perryville, Missouri, and Chester, Illinois. Blunt also won $12.6 million for an Army Corps of Engineers project to raise levees near Chesterfield and a $9 million grant for the Waynesville airport.

Sen. John Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat in his first term, secured more than $100 million for 64 projects across the state, according to a Thursday statement from his office.

“Colorado’s local communities drove these federal investments,” he said in a statement, noting the funding would “accelerate much-needed projects across the state.”

Among the Hickenlooper-sponsored projects were a $3 million allocation to convert a 71-unit hotel into affordable housing in Durango and a $7.7 million project to renovate the Montrose County Courthouse. The courthouse renovation was the largest project under the Agriculture Department’s rural development program.

Wisconsin Democrats Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Mark Pocan won nearly $40 million under USDA’s Agricultural Research Service for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Plant Germplasm Research Facility.

The funding would replace a “long-outdated breeding facility and support USDA’s vital agricultural research,” Pocan wrote. It would house 50 faculty and 10 USDA scientists, he added.

Water projects

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water projects were among the costliest provisions.

Likely the largest allocation went to a Corps construction project in South Florida. The earmark sponsored by Rep. Brian Mast, a Republican, would provide $350 million for South Florida Ecosystem Restoration to restore water flow in the Everglades. The project “contributes to ecosystem restoration, environmental protection, economic growth and public health,” Mast wrote.

That total was included in the president’s budget request, and the earmark requested no additional funding.

Mast also sponsored a $10.5 million allocation for the Corps to restore the beach at Fort Pierce.

The bill would fund $45.1 million for a multi-state Corps construction project in the Upper Mississippi River, sponsored by Reps. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., Sam Graves, R-Mo., Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, and Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., and Sens. Baldwin, Blunt, Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Amy Klobuchar D-Minn..

Oregon’s Democratic senators, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, won inclusion of $38.4 million for facilities to help salmon and steelhead trout move through a series of eight dams on the Columbia River in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. The president had requested the Corps receive $3.6 million for the effort this year.

The bill would provide $67.3 million for the Bureau of Reclamation drinking water infrastructure in rural areas around the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation and Gallup, New Mexico, under a provision sponsored by Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, (D-N.M.). The total is $11 million more than what the president had requested.

National parks expansions

Two national parks and one national monument would see funding for expansion under the bill.

That includes $4.1 million for Arizona’s Saguaro National Park to acquire 552 acres along Rincon Creek, the Saguaro Wilderness nature preserve and Coronado National Forest after a request from Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. The expansion is critical because the Rincon Creek is the only perennial waterway in the park, Kirkpatrick wrote in her request.

Gateway National Park in St. Louis would receive $2.6 million for land acquisition under a request from Blunt.

The bill would spend $3 million on land acquisition for Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico, a provision Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich made. The earmark would be the only one for a project managed by the Bureau of Land Management.



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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.