Earmarks that added $1.4 billion to THUD bill may not add votes

Republicans placing earmarks in the spending measure say won't vote for it if its overall spending levels are too high

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.,  said securing the earmarks would not necessarily secure his vote for the overall Transportation-HUD spending bill. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said securing the earmarks would not necessarily secure his vote for the overall Transportation-HUD spending bill. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 15, 2021 at 7:56am

When the House Appropriations Committee takes up the fiscal 2022 Transportation-HUD spending bill Friday, it may help decide the fate of the Jefferson City Memorial Airport Air Traffic Control Center in Missouri. 

It could help build sidewalks for Kelseyville, Calif., or redesign an intersection in downtown Pineville, N.C. It could plan and design a new commuter rail stop in Revere, Mass., on the Newburyport/Rockport line and create a pedestrian connection at that stop to the MBTA Blue Line intermodal transit facility approximately 1,000 feet to the east.

Those projects were among 975 earmarks added to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation-HUD fiscal 2022 draft spending bill. Subcommittee Chairman David E. Price, D-N.C., said there were more than 1,000 requests. 

While earmarks were once viewed as a sort of legislative grease to get members to vote for legislation they might not otherwise support, many of the Republicans who placed earmarks in the House bill or are trying to get them in the Senate version say they won't vote for the bill if its overall spending levels are too high.

In all, the subcommittee folded in $1.4 billion worth of earmarks, according to the House Appropriations Committee. Of that, $427.5 million was set aside for highway projects, while nearly $80 million was set aside for airport grants. Some $923.5 million was set aside for HUD-related economic development projects. 

A $5 million limit for individual earmarks set by the subcommittee for that bill stands in sharp contrast to member requests for transportation and housing projects made in the Senate, which is not as far along in its appropriations process. 

The difference between the two chambers is stark. Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, requested two earmarks of over $100 million: a $132.7 million for the Alabama State Port Authority to design, plan and build docks, wharves and piers as well as repair and expand existing docks, wharves and piers in Mobile, and a $100 million earmark for the Mobile Airport Authority for improvements at the Mobile Downtown Airport including a new terminal.

“They’re substantive,” said Shelby. “They’re substantive needs and wants and easily defendable.” 

But that doesn’t mean he’s inclined to vote for the bill if his earmarks are included.

“Oh, no, no, no,” he said. “Ultimately, you see what’s in the bill. Even if it might be some of your stuff, if it’s bad, you want to take it down.”

Connecticut’s two senators, Democrats Christopher S. Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, asked for $15 million to pay for rail improvements in Enfield, Conn., as well as for $15 million to demolish and replace the East Avenue, the Osborne Avenue and the Fort Point Street bridges in Norwalk, Conn.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., asked for $25 million to replace a bike path in Barrington, R.I. He also asked for $38.4 million for bridge pavement repairs along a limited access portion of U.S. 6 in Providence and Johnston, R.I.

It’s unclear, however, which of those requests will make the cut when the Senate releases its Transportation-HUD spending bill. The Senate Appropriations Committee hopes to begin markups of its spending bills the last week of July or first week of August, but has yet to release a schedule.

House

In the House, 32 members succeeded in including earmarks for transportation projects that hit the subcommittee's $5 million limit; three members were able to place earmarks of that size for economic development projects in the bill.

Freshman Republican Beth Van Duyne of Texas was among the biggest beneficiaries: She requested and received three $5 million earmarks benefiting Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, teaming up with Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, for an earmark for a new snow and ice removal equipment storage facility and with Colin Allred, D-Texas, for an earmark that would pay for a new electric plant, replacing the airport’s steam distribution system with a more efficient hot water piping system. 

Van Duyne also received a $5 million earmark for a third project at DFW Airport to consolidate the Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting Station. She requested $83.9 million for that project.

There will be no counterpart request in the Senate. Neither Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, nor John Cornyn, R-Texas, have requested earmarks, according to the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

An aide to Van Duyne, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, said the lawmaker’s earmarks came after an extensive review board of local officials weighed in on priorities. Though the $5 million is far short of the original requests, “some money is always better than nothing,” the aide said.

Van Duyne is still weighing how she’ll vote on the overall bill. “We’re kind of waiting to see what the final product is,” the aide said. “Her biggest fear is that it’ll be hooked into a CR or large omnibus bill and that will make it more difficult to vote for.”

But “if we get to the floor and it has our projects in it, certainly it’s something she’ll consider,” she said.

Most projects fell far short of the $5 million limit, and the vast majority of individual projects requested were in the Housing and Urban Development portion of the bill. Only nine of the 48 pages of earmarks were transportation projects.

The Jefferson City airport project, requested by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., would receive $3.4 million in the House bill. The Kelseyville sidewalk project, requested by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., would get $450,000. The Pineville intersection project, sought by Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., would get $1.43 million in the draft bill.  And the rail project in Revere, requested by Rep. Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., would get $4 million. Massachusetts’ two senators, Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, requested $5 million for the same project in their Senate version of the THUD spending bill.

Republicans and Democrats alike sought earmarks in the House bill. In the Senate, three of the five retiring senators, all Republicans, sought them: Shelby, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Richard M. Burr of North Carolina. Retiring Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., did not.

Blunt said securing the earmarks would not necessarily secure his vote for the overall bill.

“When we were in the majority and I was in the House, Speaker Pelosi was particularly adroit about getting big pieces of spending in a bill and then taking credit for it and voting against the bill,” he said. “So we’ll have to look at the final bill.”

Blunt is not alone in seeking earmarks but resisting overall spending measures.

During the subcommittee markup of the bill, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., the ranking Republican on the THUD subcommittee, said the $9 billion increase in the HUD portion of the bill “is something that I just can’t support.”

Still, he scored six economic development earmarks, totaling nearly $8.5 million.

“I don’t think there’s any correlation there,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. “I do think you evaluate a bill in its totality, and in most cases in appropriations bills if they come within the spending limits and you trust your appropriators, you know, I’m inclined to support those bills.”