Lawmakers, particularly Republicans, brag about eliminating earmarks as a key victory in the national anti-government spending movement. But now that election season is in full swing, the dearth of parochial projects raises questions about how Beltway big shots can show voters at home they’re still attentive to local needs.
Politicians who pushed this Congress to ban earmarks are the same people who campaigned on those funds in previous elections. And as Washington, D.C., moves forward in the post-earmark era, seasoned Hill veterans risk looking unconcerned about their constituents’ needs at worst and hypocritical at best.
“I think Tennesseans would think I’d lost my mind if I didn’t come to the United States Senate and speak about what was important to Tennessee,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, who left the GOP leadership team earlier this year.
Alexander was the only Republican Senator of the handful approached for this story who acknowledged the benefits of touting federal projects — regardless of whether they are characterized as earmarks — as part of a re-election bid.
“That would be up to each Senator’s campaign, but I would certainly want the people of Tennessee to know that I remember who elected me and that if you got dirty air in the Smokey Mountains, I’m trying to clean it up,” Alexander said, noting several other state priorities. “I think it’s very important for us not just to be a Senator for the whole nation, but especially to speak out for the needs of [constituents].”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell represents a case study of just how far Republicans have shifted on this issue.
The Kentucky Republican, once a champion of earmarks, ran for re-election with 2008 on a series of 30-second television spots tailored to six media markets and the projects he supported in those areas.
Dubbed “Future,” each ad showed the Republican leader speaking directly to the camera and then providing voice-overs for different shots of the Bluegrass State. In Northern Kentucky, he bragged about the regional airport. In Central Kentucky and Louisville, he talked about the University of Kentucky and Louisville University, respectively. He talked about riverfront development in Paducah, Owensboro and Bowling Green.
Between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2010, McConnell sponsored $458 million worth of earmarks, according to the government accountability website LegiStorm.
“I’ve secured millions for Northern Kentucky University, training tomorrow’s workforce and giving them the tools to compete,” the Senator said in one 2008 ad. “I’m Mitch McConnell and I approve this message because creating good jobs and strengthening Kentucky’s economy is my top priority.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.