For many Members of Congress, it’s been very difficult to be seen as “bringing home the bacon” over the past dozen years given prohibitions on Member or Congressionally directed funds, commonly known as earmarks.
But as the House Appropriations Committee moves forward in considering the 12 Fiscal Year 2023 funding bills this month, we are offered a glimpse into the second chapter, and the possible future, of this recently-revived tool of direct, tangible constituent benefit — earmarks — now called Community Project Funding (CPF).
Preceded by years of partisan acrimony, the 10-year ban on earmarks ended last year with new, strict guidelines to guard against the excesses and issues of the past. Importantly, after going through the markup process, an unexpected dynamic occurred when last year’s FY2022 omnibus was finally signed: roughly 4,000 CPFs (totaling nearly $10 billion) across 10 of the 12 appropriations bills were enacted into law with little disagreement or fireworks. Remarkably, the familiar role of earmarks serving as political fodder or a bludgeon was not revived. Instead, earmarks are back.
The earmarks secured in FY2022 varied in size, but generally were in the six-to-seven-figure award range. For example, Freshman Republican Rep. Malliotakis brought back $2 million for Staten Island University Hospital to support their facilities and equipment. Republican Senator Roger Wicker secured $250,000 for a literacy program, Reading is Fundamental in Mississippi. Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell brought back $1.2 million in funding from the Army Corps of Engineers to support the Dalles Tribal Village Development Plan in Washington state. Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids brought back $1 million in funding for imaging equipment at the University of Kansas Cancer Center. And so on.
Importantly, CPFs’ popularity has not waned since the ink dried on the first round of earmarks in a decade. Instead, 344 Members in the House alone have requested 4,743 CPFs for FY2023, which is an increase of 57% from FY2022. Notably, more Republican House Members, after years of skepticism, are requesting earmarks — 121 in total — with a full price tag of $5.5 billion.
Part of the explanation for the increase may focus on the expanded number of projects Members can request — now 15 — but importantly reflects the sense on the Hill of the declining politicization of earmark spending after the success of the inaugural year where largely most CPF requests were approved. In fact, many Members who sat out last year’s requests are jumping in with both feet: in one notable example, Texas Republican Randy Weber has requested a whopping $546.5 million in earmarks — the highest of any Member — after not submitting a single earmark request last year.
Despite their growing and ongoing popularity, the current version of earmarks provides only one-time funding for a single year. This reality begs the question: what happens if Republicans take over the House in November, as is widely expected? Are earmarks retained as a favored, bipartisan avenue for Members to respond to their constituents’ needs? Or is their current support a temporary marriage of convenience, only to renege back to pre-2011 skepticism and hardened into an outright ban again? At first, during the FY2022 process, many Republican offices were skeptical of earmarks; even still, 109 Members submitted CPF requests. This year, in FY2023, the top seven largest totals in earmark funding requests from Members in the House are all Republicans. Compared to Rep. Weber’s $546.5 million in requests, the largest Democratic request came from Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger at $107 million.
In a notable shift from the 2011 ban on earmarks — which came from House Republicans’ leadership — Minority Whip Scalise and Conference Chair Stefanik requested earmarks this year and last year, though Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy did not request any. Neither did House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Kay Granger, who could hold the Committee’s gavel next year.
The Senate, however, may provide some clues for how the chamber across the rotunda may proceed next Congress. Senator Susan Collins, the likely next lead Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, was aggressive and active in her own earmark requests, securing more than $200 million in earmarks directly for 105 projects in her home state of Maine — ranging from wastewater treatment upgrades to mental health services — in last year’s omnibus bill. Other Republican colleagues on the Appropriations Committee have also requested projects this cycle.
Should one or both chambers change hands following November’s midterm elections, Republican leadership will have to decide whether to retain or scrap this new round of earmarks. With Members — many of whom were not in Congress during the last round — getting a taste of these tangible benefits, undoing these local benefits may be easier said than done. Moreover, retaining earmarks could be useful in helping to maintain a future majority. Either way, given the strict guidelines and requirements, preparing projects for FY2024 still has a strong return-on-investment potential in pursuing possible targets than simply assuming earmarks will not be retained in the next Congress and not evaluating any potential projects.