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The E-word is poised for a Capitol Hill comeback

Lawmakers have more skin in the government-funding game than they have in a decade as earmarks by other names make their return to Congress

After a 10-year ban on earmarks, Congress plans to bring back the practice that allows federal funds to be set aside for specific projects in 2021. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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Lawmakers have more some skin in the game than they have in a decade as negotiations ramp up on a federal government funding bill that includes billions of dollars toward requests by hundreds of members of Congress for projects back home.

The primary goal as next month’s government funding deadline approaches will be to keep federal agencies open without any disruption. Senior lawmakers are focused intensely on crafting a new funding outline, rather than just approving a stopgap bill that keeps agencies open at 2021 levels.

To that end, leaders of the of the House and Senate Appropriations committees are making a direct pitch to rank-and-file members. After falling out of political favor earlier this century for controversies involving wasteful spending and political corruption, earmarks have returned to Congress in a more transparent form. But members’ projects will only get that money if Congress actually passes these new funding outlines for agencies.

“This was a joint effort, if you will, understanding the value of community projects,” Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a telephone interview Wednesday, explaining the bipartisan effort at securing earmarks. “We need to complete our work on appropriations, and if we don’t, these projects are in limbo.”

More than 220 House Democrats requested more than 2,000 projects for their districts, while 108 House Republicans — a majority of their caucus — requested more than 700 projects, according to the committee.

More than 60 senators have secured earmarks in their appropriations bills, including 16 Republicans, according to the Senate committee.

Neither House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) nor Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sought projects for this fiscal year, adhering to recent history in which earmarks became politically taboo for Republicans.

But their deputies had no such qualms.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) has tentatively secured $1 million for a mobile screening project for a hospital north of New Orleans, among other local projects he sought. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, the No. 3 GOP leader, has landed $1 million for nursing labs at a community college near the Canadian border.

Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the second- and fourth-ranking members, respectively, of McConnell’s leadership team, are both seeking tens of millions in projects. Blunt, for example, is trying to steer $1.5 million to Southeast Missouri State University for “de-escalation” programs for training police, while Thune wants $30 million to build a new highway interchange in Sioux Falls, S.D.

DeLauro and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, worked with their GOP counterparts, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.) and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), to craft a more open system for earmarks than when the practice exploded in the late 1990s.

They limited total earmark funds to 1 percent of the overall budget — about $15 billion out of the less than $1.5 trillion allotted for federal agencies in the 12 spending bills. So far, according to senior aides, the committees have only allocated $10 billion in earmarks, well below the cap. Lawmakers were prohibited from steering money to private, for-profit companies, limiting the requests to local hospitals, schools, municipal authorities and other nonprofit organizations.

They had to publicly swear that they had no personal financial connection to these entities and had to document that these projects had support in the local communities. The House went a step further and limited each lawmaker to just 10 earmark requests.

The Senate officially calls them “congressionally directed spending” requests, while the House dubbed them “community project funding,” in its attempt to avoid using the E-word. As earmarks proliferated 20 years ago, K Street turned securing them into a cottage industry. Lobbying firms plucked away the top staff who handled earmarks for a specific lawmaker, turning them into lobbyists whose focus was getting clients, often from their former boss’s district, to create more and more earmarks.

The Justice Department won corruption convictions against more than a dozen lobbyists and a few federal agency workers, and several lawmakers went to federal prison. By 2011, when Republicans took control of the House, then-Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) banished the practice.

As in any good political deed, the punishment quickly became evident: With no actual direct connection to those appropriations bills, lawmakers lost interest in funding the government. Instead, the minority party even held those bills hostage as a way to try to win other policy disputes, leading to a string of government shutdowns last decade.

With the last earmarks delivered in the 2010 funding bill, more than 300 members of the House have never partaken in this practice. DeLauro believes bringing these earmarks back can help connect lawmakers directly to the work that Congress is doing.

“It is really delivering for communities,” she said, noting that it could forge more bipartisan work in the months and years ahead. “I hope that drives cooperation going forward.”

Supporters of earmarks, who range from liberals to the far-right flank of the House GOP, think they have a closer connection to the needs of their districts and states than staff inside federal agencies,

“I am a lifelong Vermonter, and I know my state very well. I have a deep understanding of Vermont’s communities, Vermonters and their needs,” Leahy said in a speech in April outlining the new earmark process.

“Our communities — not bureaucrats in Washington — know how best to direct local spending. Every year, New York state pays more in taxes to the federal government than it gets back in return. I support the Community Project Funding program because it brings taxpayer dollars back to Upstate New York,” Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.), a staunch conservative, said last year when she laid out her budget requests.

Tenney received $2 million for a pedestrian bridge in Utica, N.Y., and $3 million for a technology park renovation in Rome, N.Y., although she had initially sought $15 million for that effort.

Now it’s up to congressional leaders to reach a deal on government funding, or else these earmarks — community projects, congressional directed spending, whatever you want to call them — will disappear.

For months, Republicans had been cool to a broad bill in the range of $1.5 trillion because Democrats were separately pushing a roughly $2 trillion legislative grab bag designed to refashion everything from child care to elderly care.

With that legislation stalled in the Senate, appropriators think they have an opportunity to move their legislation, winning bipartisan support. Shelby told reporters Wednesday that the top four appropriators would meet Thursday after congressional leaders gave them the go-ahead to heat up talks.

“Go to work,” Shelby said.

DeLauro thinks this moment is ripe for a deal, unlocking billions of dollars in earmarks for lawmakers to go back home and demonstrate to their constituents what they can do in Washington.

“We have created a model,” she said.