Plenty of budget room seen to accommodate House, Senate earmarks

But until parties bridge gap on split between defense and nondefense funding allocations, it’s unlikely any appropriations bills will move

Jon Tester, one of two Senate Democrats not to request funding through the new earmark process, says earmarks don’t “work out really well.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Jon Tester, one of two Senate Democrats not to request funding through the new earmark process, says earmarks don’t “work out really well.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 13, 2021 at 7:00am

Lawmakers who secured earmarks in their chamber’s appropriations bills will likely see that funding in a final spending package, as long as the House and Senate can reach agreement later this year.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy and ranking member Richard C. Shelby said this week they don’t anticipate trying to remove any earmarks from the House bills. Nor do they expect appropriators on the other side of the Capitol to try to strike senators’ home-state project funding in conference.

“I think they’re gonna say, ‘OK, put yours in and we’ll put ours in.’ And that’s probably what will happen as long as they are within the limits,” Leahy said. “I don’t think the Senate is going to object, and vice versa.”

“The House got their earmarks. … We have ours, the Democrats and the Republicans,” added Shelby. “I think we ought to respect, when we can, each other’s areas.”

House lawmakers have released all 12 of their initial spending bills, with nine passing in that chamber before the recess. The Senate has released just three of its fiscal 2022 bills, leaving dozens of senators waiting to find out if they’ll get the funding they requested.

House earmarks totaled $3.7 billion, or about 0.25 percent of the 1 percent cap Democratic leaders placed on “congressionally directed spending” for the upcoming fiscal year. That leaves plenty of room for Senate appropriators to tack on earmarks without breaching that limit.

The split between Republicans and Democrats in the House favored the majority party, with about 62 percent of earmarked funds going to their districts, although Republicans did relatively well considering about one-third of members requesting projects were in the GOP. 

Leahy, D-Vt., originally promised a 50-50 partisan split in Senate appropriations bills for earmarked funds. Shelby, R-Ala., was firm in holding Leahy to that pledge until the panel released its first batch of bills earlier this month.

Shelby later accepted a slightly different breakdown after 16 out of 50 Republicans submitted project requests, while 48 out of 50 Democrats did. He said last week that the first three bills’ earmark split is “a good indication” the process would be fair.

“Actually, we don’t need 50-50,” said Shelby, acknowledging his side “didn’t have enough requests to spend it.”

The Agriculture spending bill included $187.2 million in earmarks, with about 10 percent for Republicans. But that amount is deceiving since Senate Republicans requested just $20.4 million earmarks in the bill and won subcommittee approval of $18 million.

The Energy-Water measure includes $771.8 million in funding for requested projects, with $285.3 million, or 37 percent, for Republicans; $70.2 million is for bipartisan proposals, and the rest were Democrat-only requests.

The Military Construction-VA bill would fund almost $1.2 billion in earmarks; 41 percent of that would go to GOP senators.

The total amount of earmarks in House and Senate Agriculture and Energy-Water bills is comparable, but the MilCon-VA total in the Senate is far higher than the House’s $199.2 million.

That figure includes about $118 million in projects requested by both House lawmakers and senators. But with similar overall MilCon-VA spending allocations, the two chambers will need to find a way to avoid cutting into other programs to accommodate the higher earmark total. A new spending cap adjustment for veterans medical care could potentially help if the House adopts the Senate-passed fiscal 2022 budget blueprint.

No ‘whining and moaning’

Not all senators are eager to get in on the action, however.

The majority of Senate Republicans have been wary of the process since the beginning, opting to keep a “permanent ban” on earmarking in their conference rules despite that provision not actually binding members and several high-ranking GOP senators requesting projects. In total, 34 Senate Republicans opted not to request funding through the new earmark process, as did two Democrats.

Those two were Montana’s Jon Tester, who’s up for reelection in 2024 in a state that former President Donald Trump won by more than 16 points last year, and New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, who’s in-cycle next year defending a seat she won by 1,017 votes in 2016.

Tester said in a brief interview last week that earmarks don’t “work out really well.”

The Defense Appropriations Subcommittee chairman used his bill as an example, saying that if appropriators fund various agencies and provisions in the spending bills well, the military or any other federal department should be able to determine where those resources go.

“If it’s in Malmstrom Air Force Base, then put [money] there. And if it’s not, then I’m not going to be whining and moaning and wanting an earmark for it,” Tester said, referring to a base in his home state. “We’ve got a limited amount of money. The threats are real. We need to make sure that we’re allowing the military to be as effective as they can.”

Tester, however, noted that his thoughts on earmarks could change if he feels the Defense Department steps out of line on spending issues.

“If that changes over my time on this committee, where I think the military is doing things not for military purposes, then my opinion on it will totally change,” Tester said.

As for Hassan, she wants time to assess new oversight and transparency guardrails in the earmarking process. “There have been legitimate concerns about how congressionally directed funding has been misused in the past, and she wants to see whether the safeguards that have been added to the process this year work,” a spokesperson said.

Battleground senators

Other Senate Democrats in tough races next year, including Georgia’s Raphael Warnock, Arizona’s Mark Kelly and Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto, all opted in on funding requests, with varying degrees of success.  

Warnock requested $31.4 million worth of projects in the first three bills and came away from the markups with $22.9 million. He lost out on an Army Corps of Engineers project to improve infrastructure around Lake Acworth, and appropriators gave Warnock some of the money he wanted for a cybersecurity training center at the Army’s Fort Gordon.

Warnock, who won a special election runoff contest in January with 51.04 percent of the vote, will face another challenging campaign just next year in a state Democrats are hoping to hold, although the odds are stacked against them.  

Kelly requested $139.7 million in Agriculture, Energy-Water and MilCon-VA projects. Appropriators downsized his requests, several of which were shared with fellow Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, to $32.2 million, mainly by axing a $99.6 million joint request to build new housing at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.

Kelly won the special election last year to fill the late GOP Sen. John McCain’s seat by 2.4 percentage points in a state that was one of President Joe Biden’s closest calls, as he defeated Trump by less than 10,500 votes.

Cortez-Masto was elected in 2016 with just 49 percent of the vote, in a state Biden also narrowly carried, barely topping the 50 percent threshold himself. She got $7.7 million in the first three bills, all co-sponsored by Nevada Democrat Jacky Rosen.

Only one of Cortez-Masto’s six Agriculture projects was funded: $500,000 to manage the wild horse population in Nevada’s Virginia mountain range. She lost out on $390,000 for a Hoover Dam site assessment in the Energy-Water bill, as well as $10 million for two military construction projects.

Republicans Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Marco Rubio of Florida, both of whom face potentially tough campaigns in 2022, didn’t participate in this year’s earmark process and likely won’t in the years to come. Both signed an April letter saying they were committed to their party’s ban on earmarks and committing to “not participate in an inherently wasteful spending practice that is prone to serious abuse.”

And the two are co-sponsors on a bill that would permanently ban earmarks, though the legislation isn’t likely to advance. 

In resurrecting the earmark process earlier this year, Leahy and House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., sought to avoid the type of scandals that plagued lawmaker-directed spending before the ban took effect in 2011.

The two placed a series of new guardrails and transparency mechanisms on the process, including banning for-profit entities from receiving the funds and requiring members to certify that neither they nor their immediate family have a financial interest in the projects they request. The Government Accountability Office will also conduct annual audits of the earmarks.

Nonetheless, only about half of House Republicans requested earmarks, and an even slimmer minority in the Senate did so. Rubio is one of five Senate Appropriations Committee Republicans to vote “no” on the first three bills in committee; none requested earmarks.

But 10 Republicans on the Senate panel voted for those bills, demonstrating that at least three of the dozen fiscal 2022 spending bills could get the 60 votes needed to advance in that chamber. But until the two parties bridge a serious gap on the overall split between defense and nondefense funding allocations, it’s unlikely any of the bills will move.