House Democrats are taking full advantage of the revived earmark process to spend millions of dollars on pet projects in their districts to curry favor with voters ahead of expected bruising midterm elections next year.
Earmarks, which are returning to Capitol Hill for the first time in more than a decade, allow individual lawmakers to insert discretionary spending measures into legislation. Congress now is kicking the process into high gear for President Biden’s more than $4 trillion plans for infrastructure and social programs.
“I think that members of the Senate should have just as much, if not more, say in the way funds are appropriated and authorized than the administration should have, because I think we have a better handle on what our needs are in the individual states,” said Sen. Michael Rounds, South Dakota Republican.
While both parties plan to make use of earmarks, vulnerable House Democrats appear to be looking for the most political benefit.
Nearly every member of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s thin majority has filed a request for an earmark, while 106 Republicans — half of the House GOP contingent — have done likewise. Of the 57 House Democrats considered most at risk of losing their seats next year, 56 have filed requests for earmarks with the House Appropriations Committee.
“Earmarks could literally alter the outcome of the 2022 election because freshmen or junior members who otherwise cannot pass legislation or add budget riders have the chance to secure multiple, multimillion-dollar projects,” said Colin Strother, a Texas-based Democratic consultant.
Data released by the appropriations committee this week revealed how Democrats in at-risk House seats are embracing the earmark process.
For instance, Rep. Cindy Axne, the only incumbent Democrat to secure reelection in Iowa last year, requested $10 million in earmarks. Her requests are spread over 10 projects that include expanding child care centers and upgrading bridges and water systems.
In 2020, Mrs. Axne retained her House seat by less than 1 percentage point even as former President Trump carried the district against Mr. Biden.
Mrs. Axne’s office did not return requests for comment.
Others, such as two-term Democratic Rep. Colin Allred, have formed bipartisan committees within their districts to help decide which projects would be earmarked.
Mr. Allred, who represents a swing district that voted heavily Republican in 2012 before shifting toward Democrats in 2016 and 2020, is requesting nearly $242 million in earmarks. Most of the money would go to upgrade Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, which is in his district.
“I’m incredibly proud of our community-driven budgeting process that will leverage input from local leaders to help prioritize the needs of North Texas and create jobs,” Mr. Allred said.
Projects such as those requested by Mrs. Axne and Mr. Allred could provide them bragging rights on the campaign trail and possibly bolster their chance of reelection.
In an era of partisan gridlock, “effectiveness” is a powerful tool for elected officials to woo voters in swing districts, according to political strategists.
Republicans also are using earmarks but at somewhat lower levels, which is partly because of conservatives’ ideological opposition to the practice. Some GOP lawmakers notably point to the reason the House established its ban on earmarks in 2011.
At the time, the process was fraught with controversy after revelations that members of Congress had pushed funding for projects that posed a conflict of interest.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, was ensnared in scandal in 2006 for pushing a $207 million earmark to build a highway close to property he owned in Illinois.
Similarly, high-flying lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty in the mid-2000s for bribing members of Congress to include earmarks in federal spending bills that benefited his clients in the gambling industry.
The scandals were accompanied by widespread exposes of lawmakers using earmarks to push pet projects that many, including their constituents, said were unneeded and wasteful. The prime example of such spending was a project pushed by Republican Rep. Don Young to build a bridge connecting a small town and an island in his home state of Alaska.
Mr. Young secured $223 million for the project in 2005 and continued bringing home funding until the costs for the bridge grew to nearly $400 million by 2011. The project, labeled infamously as the “Bridge to Nowhere,” was opposed by both good government groups and the residents and elected officials of Alaska.
The project, which was officially abandoned nearly a decade after its start, was a prime example that House Republicans invoked when opting to ban earmarks upon winning the majority in 2010.
Given the troubled history, congressional Democrats have attempted to overhaul the earmark process and make it more transparent as a condition for bringing it back.
Currently, each House member is allowed to submit only 10 earmark requests. Funding will be limited to community projects, and for-profit corporations and entities are banned from receiving earmarks.
The House Appropriations Committee also requires lawmakers to submit their requests in writing, which are made publicly available online.
Despite the changes, some Republicans are not sold on the practice. While both parties in the House backed reinstating earmarks, Senate Republicans have opted to keep their voluntary ban on the practice.
“I argued forcefully as did a number of other senators that, that would be a serious mistake to return to earmarks,” said Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “Earmarks are the gateway drug to excess spending. … They also invite corruption, and there’s been a sad and sordid history, including members of Congress who’ve gone to prison.”
Some say, however, that such rhetoric only serves to benefit Democrats, especially those in marginal House seats, “disproportionately because they’ve embraced the earmark process.”
“Since Trump’s departure, Republicans are pretending to care about deficits and debt so they face the conundrum of using earmarks to increase their standing in the district, but opening themselves up to a hypocrisy argument,” said Mr. Strother, who advised the reelection campaign of moderate Texas Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar in 2020.