GOP’s earmark schism evident in ‘earmark’ disclosures

The return of home-state projects has many Republicans pitching for funds

Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., is among lawmakers who opposed the earmark process but has also requested funds for his district. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., is among lawmakers who opposed the earmark process but has also requested funds for his district. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 5, 2021 at 8:00am

Second-term Florida Rep. Greg Steube sums up Republicans’ soul-searching when it comes to earmarking federal dollars for their home states and districts.

Steube signed a March 10 letter to top Democrats spearheaded by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., urging them to stop their efforts to bring back earmarks for the fiscal 2022 budget cycle.

“Nothing epitomizes what is wrong with Washington more than pork-barrel spending in the form of congressional earmarks,” reads the letter from 35 Republicans in both chambers.

Yet before last week’s deadline to submit line-item requests to the House Appropriations and Transportation and Infrastructure committees, Steube asked for 10 projects, ranging from $500,000 for a study of shoreline erosion in Charlotte County to $21 million for road-widening to ease congestion near the entrance to Interstate 75. 

Earmarks, also known as member-directed spending, are the process by which lawmakers can steer funds to specific projects in their home states and districts.

Steube’s aides didn’t respond to requests for comment. But his apparent change of heart when it comes to earmarks epitomizes the sentiment conservative columnist George Will expressed in his latest opinion piece.

Citing House Republicans’ 102-84 vote in March to change their conference rules and allow earmarking, Will wrote: “It will be interesting to see how many of the 84 stick to abstinence while the majority of their caucus returns to sinning.”

[House Republican Conference votes to bring back earmarks]

The March vote was a secret ballot, in which 25 Republicans at the time plus Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., who was sworn in later, didn’t vote. Including Letlow, there are 110 Republicans who didn’t submit requests for “community project funding” to the Appropriations Committee before last week’s deadline, or more than half the GOP conference. 

Of those, at least seven submitted requests to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for inclusion in the big surface transportation bill that panel is working on, however. Of the 45-member GOP freshman class, 23 haven’t requested appropriations earmarks; but four of those 23 have asked for highway bill earmarks — five if you count Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on his second Capitol Hill go-round.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who’s carved out a reputation as a libertarian spending hawk, drew fire from both parties, including President Donald Trump, last year when he held up remote voting on a massive $2 trillion coronavirus relief package. “Can we put the earmarks, the ass kissing, the cronyism, and the partisan crap aside until this is over?” Massie tweeted in response to the criticism.

Massie, a Transportation Committee member, requested five projects for this year’s highway bill, ranging from $2 million to help create an alternate route from Covington, Ky., to Cincinnati that doesn’t require driving on the congested Brent Spence Bridge, to $18.27 million for a new intersection to help provide easier access to a new air cargo fulfillment center at Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Airport.

Among Republican leaders, Minority Whip Steve Scalise is the only one to request earmarks. The Louisiana Republican asked for five projects, from $900,000 for advance work on channel-deepening at Port Fouchon, a major service point for offshore oil and gas exploration, to $15 million for a flood-control project aimed at protecting residents and shipyards from hurricane storm surges.

No requests for Granger

GOP committee leaders are split somewhat evenly, though there’s one noticeable absence from the list of earmark requesters: Texas’ Kay Granger, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. Granger aides didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Granger in the past has said she’d be willing to back earmarks again as long as the appropriate safeguards were included. Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has bent over backwards to do so, with full disclosure, a ban on for-profit entities receiving funds and certification that neither members nor their family members would benefit financially. 

Only two other GOP appropriators haven’t requested earmarks: second-term Virginia Rep. Ben Cline and Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, which takes a hard line on federal spending. “I will never support earmarks!” Harris tweeted in February, after the Freedom Caucus released a statement opposing their return.

Top Republican committee leaders who are supporting earmarks include Transportation and Infrastructure’s Sam Graves of Missouri, who’ll be part of writing the surface transportation bill; Energy and Commerce’s Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington; Rules’ Tom Cole of Oklahoma, also a senior Appropriations member; and Agriculture’s Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania. 

Retiring Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady, R-Texas, is among those not in favor of earmarks; same with Budget ranking member Jason Smith, R-Mo., a potential Senate candidate to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Roy Blunt

Of the three Republicans vying to succeed Brady at Ways and Means, only California’s Devin Nunes is not requesting earmarks. The other two are Florida’s Vern Buchanan, who submitted the maximum 10 requests, and Nebraska’s Adrian Smith, with a more modest two, one each to the Transportation and Appropriations panels.

More to come?

The House Appropriations Committee’s web portal to lawmakers’ earmark requests may not capture everyone who has submitted requests, since highway bill projects won’t be reflected there in all cases. Also, according to the panel’s website, additional requests “may be posted in May or June after project lists in President Biden’s budget are known.”

Last month, the White House released a rough outline of agency funding proposals, with the details to come later. 

White House budgets often come along with their own heavily earmarked proposals, for agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and military construction and family housing programs. Some lawmakers’ requests may get posted after those proposals are released so they don’t waste their own limited number of asks on projects already in the president’s budget. 

One freshman Republican who hasn’t posted any requests yet — but isn’t ruling out backing federal funds for her district at some point in the process — is California’s Michelle Steel, who won a tight race against former Rep. Harley Rouda to flip a longtime GOP stronghold in Orange County back into the red column last November. 

Steel is “currently working through the regular appropriations process, with the support of local stakeholders to secure funding for community projects. She wants to be as diligent as possible in protecting taxpayer dollars,” said Faith Mabry, Steel’s press secretary. 

Steel’s constituents are certainly asking for funds, such as a $10 million request from the Orange County Sanitation District for a wastewater treatment project. The agency wrote to Steel in April that the money would help “ensure the long-term sustainability of critical public health and environmental services, including affordable wastewater services to disadvantaged communities” in the county.

Rep. Young Kim, another Orange County Republican who took back the seat for the GOP in a tough race last year, did submit earmark requests, up to the 10-project limit for appropriations plus an $18 million ask for the transportation bill to alleviate congestion on two heavily traveled freight highways.

Only one Orange County representative, a Democrat, didn’t ask for earmarks. The 45th District’s Katie Porter is the only House Democrat who hasn’t submitted project requests. 

Considered a rising star in the party and a top fundraiser, Porter took a stand against earmarks in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece earlier this year entitled “My Fellow Democrats, Let Earmarks Stay in the Dustbin of History.” She’s also one of the 32 “Frontline” program Democrats, designated by party leaders for special help in the midterms because they’re top GOP targets.  

David Lerman contributed to this report.