Back in style: Congress’s decade-long experiment in governing without earmarks is over.
President Biden this week is expected to sign into law the first spending bill since the early years of the Obama administration that includes earmarks — money set aside for pet projects in lawmakers’ states and districts.
And members in both parties are already eagerly touting the money they are bringing home.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), the No. 3 House Republican, put out a list of the earmarks she'd secured and said she was “proud to return millions in taxpayer dollars to our district.” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said he, too, was “proud” of the projects he championed. And retiring Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who's made a career out of showering Alabama with federal funds, declared himself “pleased” with his earmark haul.
Earmarks disappeared from the congressional landscape more than a decade ago after members of both parties derided them as emblematic of Washington's corruption and excess.
Former House Speaker John Boehner led the push to ban earmarks after Republicans recaptured the House in 2010. Former president Barack Obama endorsed the ban, ridiculing earmarks as a symbol of waste in the lean years after the financial crisis.
“We can’t afford Bridges to Nowhere like the one that was planned a few years back in Alaska,” Obama said at the time, citing an infamous earmark proposed in 2005 that “became a national symbol of congressional porkmania,” as The Post put it.
Now lawmakers have decided we can, in fact, afford such projects.
“Here's the truth: the earmark ban served only to shift Congress’ rightful power to the Executive Branch while denying needed funds to local organizations,” Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) tweeted on Thursday. “I proudly secured earmarks for AK in the FY22 omnibus!”
But not everyone is happy about it.
An amendment introduced by Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) to bar earmarks from the spending bill on Thursday evening won the support of 34 Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.).
Advocates of earmarks have argued that they allow members to address needs back home and are a small price to pay for giving lawmakers more incentive to work together in a polarized Washington.
In an interview on Friday, Braun acknowledged that earmarks make up a miniscule percentage of total federal spending, but said they were “disproportionately symbolic.”
“I don’t think it’s worth it,” he said. “And obviously we did just fine without ‘em for 11 years.”
The Republican divide over earmarks is indicative of broader disagreements over what the party should stand for as it heads into the midterms, Braun said.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, touched off the debate late last month when he announced an “11-point plan to rescue America,” which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) disavowed.
Scott voted for Braun’s amendment to ban earmarks on Thursday; McConnell did not.
“It needs to be clear what we are gonna be for,” Braun said. “I don’t think we can be the party of ‘no’ or ‘I’m not interested’ on most issues. And I think it’s got to be clear as well whether we’re a party of fiscal integrity or, you know, we’re gonna throw in with the Democrats.”
There are no such divides on K Street, where helping clients secure earmarks was once a lucrative line of business.
“As earmarks proliferated 20 years ago, K Street turned securing them into a cottage industry,” our colleague Paul Kane reported in January. “Lobbying firms plucked away the top staff who handled earmarks for a specific lawmaker, turning them into lobbyists whose focus was getting clients, often from their former boss’s district, to create more and more of them.”
Asked what the return of earmarks means for K Street, one lobbyist who has advised clients on winning them responded: “It means joy, rapture, hallelujah.” The lobbyist spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about K Street's views on the issue.
Still, things have changed since the heyday of earmarks lobbying.
New transparency requirements make clear which lawmakers requested which earmarks and require them to pledge they have no financial interest in the projects. And some Democrats have started asking whether proposed projects will aid impoverished areas or help reduce carbon emissions, according to the lobbyist.
Those transparency also requirements make it easy to figure out which lawmakers requested projects that their colleagues have ridiculed.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) tweeted out a video on Thursday evening singling out earmarks he found especially outrageous, including “$300,000 for a left-wing anti-gun group that thinks, and I’m quoting from their website, the Second Amendment has long been a tool for White supremacy.”
Seven of the eight earmarks he cited had been requested by Democrats, but one of them — which he described as “$10 million to tear down an abandoned hotel in Alaska” — was backed by a fellow Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Several Democrats who’d requested the earmarks that Daines bashed defended them as investments in their districts.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who secured funding for the Seattle-based Alliance for Gun Responsibility Foundation — which Daines described as a “left-wing anti-gun group” — wrote in a letter last year requesting the money that it “would be used to support efforts to reduce gun violence in the community by diverting offenses from the traditional court process, which focuses on punishment and labeling conduct, to a restorative justice approach that utilizes Peacemaking Circles.”
And Rep. Katherine Clark, the No. 4 House Democrat, defended $280,000 she requested to retrofit a Waltham, Mass., parking lot to make it more environmentally friendly.
“If Republicans like Senator Daines don’t understand the value of health equity, gun prevention, climate readiness, and local community funding, well, that tells the American people all they need to know,” she said in a statement to The Early.