House appropriators will begin sifting through thousands of earmark proposals next week, kicking off an arduous process that will mark the first time in a decade that subcommittee chairs have had the power to steer federal dollars to specific projects in lawmakers’ home states and districts.
Exactly how they will dole out the limited pot of money is murky, leaving watchdog groups and skeptical lawmakers concerned that even with new transparency mechanisms in place, leaders could use “congressionally directed spending” to buy votes, reward party loyalists or bolster vulnerable members’ campaigns at the expense of more worthy projects.
Groups tracking the process expect a few bumps during the first year but say the pressure is on congressional leaders and appropriators to ensure that small issues don’t turn into problems that erode public confidence in the whole endeavor.
“I think they recognize the spotlight is going to be on them and if they trip up, particularly early on, it’s going to contaminate the whole thing and maybe undercut bringing back earmarks,” said Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “So I do think they are going to be bending over backwards to make sure that it looks equitable.”
Earmark requests are due to the House Appropriations Committee by the end of this week, with senators submitting their proposals later this year.
Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the top Democratic appropriators in each chamber, have placed several new guardrails on the process, hoping to avoid scandals or the appearance that lawmakers are using taxpayer dollars for anything other than needed community projects.
The new process caps earmarked funds at 1 percent of discretionary spending, limits the accounts eligible for earmarks and requires members to post their requests online.
Members must certify that neither they nor their immediate family members have any financial interest in the project, and for-profit entities are not eligible for the funding. The Government Accountability Office is also tasked with auditing a sample of the earmarks every year and submitting a report to Congress.
The House process limits members to 10 project requests. Senate procedure includes a point of order against adding new earmarks to a conference report and requires that earmarks be posted online at least 48 hours before a floor vote on a conference report.
But there isn’t yet confidence that the new system is foolproof.
“We know from experience with other good-government reforms that sometimes lawmakers can be crafty. They find ways around it,” said Benjamin Ritz, director of the Center for Funding America’s Future at the Progressive Policy Institute, a left-of-center think tank. “And it doesn’t always work. So I am optimistic about the process that has been put in place and look forward to seeing how it works.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said in an interview last week that appropriators will be talking with members about earmark requests and vetting the projects themselves “to ensure they’re legitimate requests for legitimate entities and worthwhile objectives.”
But Hoyer was less specific about how exactly the panel’s leaders would sift through thousands of proposals to determine which projects get funded.
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said the House Appropriations Committee has been a bit “opaque” on how exactly it will determine which projects make it into the spending bills. But she expects funding to be doled out somewhat evenly between more moderate Democrats and progressives.
“There needs to be equality across every district regardless of whether you’re a Frontline or progressive,” Jayapal said. “All of our districts have deep needs, and so we were given some assurance of that.”
In the Senate, Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby has repeatedly said earmarked money must go to “meritorious” projects, although the Alabama Republican is vague about how a home-state project will meet that standard.
“I think the subcommittee chairmen will have a lot to say about that,” Shelby said, later adding that ranking members would be included too.
‘Let's be honest’
House Energy-Water Subcommittee ranking member Mike Simpson said appropriators don’t yet know exactly how they’ll determine which projects receive funding. But he said he expects the first year to include some hiccups for rank-and-file lawmakers as well as leaders.
“I think this is just going to be an unusual year and you’re going to find some stuff that you kind of go, ‘Well, that didn’t work out very well,’” Simpson said.
The Idaho Republican said it’s likely that both parties will include political considerations in the earmark selection process, whether they admit it or not.
“If you look at it and say, ‘OK, we’ve only got enough money to do one of these two requests. This is a vulnerable member that has a tough reelection. This one here is in a safe district.’ Guess where you’re probably going to go?” Simpson said. “Let’s be honest. That will happen on both sides.”
How much money goes to each side of the aisle is also up in the air.
Leahy said in March that GOP senators will get half of the earmarked funds in that chamber if they participate in the process. That would work out to about $4 billion during the upcoming fiscal 2022 process, according to Shelby.
In the House, Hoyer said there isn’t a set division between the amounts Republicans and Democrats will get for their earmark requests but he expects that a “substantial number” of GOP lawmakers’ requests “will be honored and will be included in the bills.”
A bipartisan, bicameral ban on earmarks was originally instituted in 2011 after years of scandals that sent some members to prison and led others to grow frustrated by a system that often rewarded long-serving members and not those with more urgent projects.
During the past decade, members of both parties have advocated a return to a more controlled and transparent process for delivering what supporters have now branded “community project funding.”
Members who support earmarks argue that it’s Congress’ constitutional prerogative to determine how much the federal government spends and where those dollars go. They also say lawmakers know their communities better than unelected federal employees who may have never been to their region of the country.
Skeptical lawmakers, including dozens of conservative Republicans, say it’s a return to the “bad old days.”
“I am strongly opposed to going back to the bad old days of earmarks. It was extremely wasteful, it was often corrupting, it was the currency that was used to buy votes on bad legislation,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., said earlier this month. “So there are a lot of reasons why I think we should not go back.”
Watchdog groups are similarly concerned that issues that stymied the earmarking process before the ban could reemerge despite leaders’ attempts to more tightly control the process.
“Our concern has always been about conflicts of interest and unfair earmark distribution and the way that can lead to money being spent in a wasteful or fraudulent manner,” said Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen.
“I think the problems could happen if members or senators find ways to circumvent the financial interest safeguards,” Gilbert added. “That’s going to be an issue we’re going to watch closely.”