Home-district projects for members of Congress are back, sprinkled across the government-wide $1.5 trillion bill President Joe Biden signed in mid-March. The official tally shows amounts modest by past standards yet spread widely around the country—and that understate what lawmakers are claiming credit for.
The bipartisan measure, financing federal agencies this year, contains 4,975 such projects worth $9.7 billion, according to an Associated Press examination of items attributed to specific lawmakers in documents accompanying the bill. The listed projects, long called earmarks, ranged from $4,000 for evidence detection equipment for Huntington, West Virginia, to $350 million to help restore Florida’s vast but imperiled Everglades.
The projects’ reemergence after an 11-year hiatus, with transparency requirements and other curbs, marks a revival of expenditures that let lawmakers tout achievements to voters and help party leaders build support for legislation. While still vilified by some, especially conservatives, as emblems of influence peddling and wasteful spending, they’ve been embraced by lawmakers from both parties, who cite Congress’ constitutional power of the purse and say they know their local needs.
Retiring Sen. Richard Shelby attained $126 million for two campuses of the University of Alabama, his alma mater, including for an endowment for its flagship Tuscaloosa campus to hire science and engineering faculty. There was also hundreds of millions to improve the city of Mobile’s seaport and airport, part of an eye-popping $648 million he amassed for his state, according to the AP’s look at the legislative documents.
The price tag of Shelby’s projects was the highest in Congress, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that favors fiscal restraint and produced largely similar figures in its own preliminary study. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was next at $361 million.
“I’m very proud of them,” said Shelby, top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which writes spending bills. He rebuffed complaints that it was unfair for senior lawmakers to use clout to garner federal spending.
“I think you earn your way,” Shelby, in Congress since 1979, said in a brief interview. “And that’s what people do in any legislative body. And people vote on them. That’s what it’s all about.”
In press releases issued as Congress approved the legislation last month, Shelby took credit for winning “billions” for Alabama, well beyond the amount in the public list. His statements cited $1.3 billion for flight training at Fort Rucker, an Army base, $570 million for construction on an FBI technical center at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal and other items not on the legislation’s official roster of projects.
Claims they’d brought even more money back home than the tables showed were common among lawmakers. That’s because Congress narrowly defines home-district projects as lawmaker-driven expenditures for specific locations or recipients that existing laws or agency procedures wouldn’t have automatically triggered.
That leaves room, for example, for legislators to take credit for bolstering broad national programs they know benefit their states without having the items listed publicly as home district projects, a characterization that can still attract disdain.
“Those lawmakers know where that money is going,” said Steve Ellis, the Taxpayers group president.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had 203 projects for New York, ranging from $27 million to upgrade Fort Drum’s water systems to $44,000 for neighborhood improvements in the city of Geneva, the AP found. Facing what should be easy reelection this fall, Schumer totaled $314 million, including at least $23 million for hospitals, violence prevention and other programs in his home borough of Brooklyn.
Schumer had more home district projects than anyone else in Congress, the Taxpayers organization’s figures showed. Next came Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, who each had fewer than 150. The House limited lawmakers to a maximum of 10.
Schumer sponsored many projects along with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and some of the state’s House members. In press releases, he took credit for even more—such as $293 million he and Gillibrand said they’d secured for the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., following “their fierce advocacy.”
Fewer than 150 lawmakers received no listed projects, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Yet in a seven-page press release, he cited over three dozen items he said he’d “secured” that would benefit his state.
These included $321 million for an environmental cleanup at an old uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, $73 million to refurbish barracks at Fort Campbell and money for nationwide substance abuse, water project and other programs that help the state.
“I was proud to help craft this legislation with a special focus on Kentucky,” he wrote.
Long distributed with little transparency, Congress stopped providing earmarks in 2011 after high-profile abuses soured voters on them.
Leaders resuscitated the practice for this year with restrictions forbidding financial interest in the projects by lawmakers, requiring public disclosure of requests, barring for-profit recipients and curbing spending amounts. In a rebranding, they’re now called community project funding by the House, congressionally directed spending by the Senate.
Whatever their name, the projects retain a stigma to some, especially Republicans.
All but a handful of the 222 House Democrats requested projects for this year’s bill, compared with around half the 210 Republicans. In the 50-50 Senate, the items were sought by 46 Democrats and their two allied independents, but just 16 Republicans.
Only three states received no projects after their congressional delegations declined to request any: Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. Eight of the nine lawmakers representing those conservative states are Republicans.
Even so, much of the largesse in the 2,741-page legislation was bipartisan.
The measure provided $5.1 billion for Democrats, $3.4 billion for Republicans and $600 million for projects sponsored by members of both parties, according to the Taxpayers group. Nearly all who requested projects got some.
The AP’s figures include spending that the documents showed was also requested by Biden, which enhanced its chances. The entire $350 million Everglades restoration project, requested by Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., was sought by Biden, and at least $99 million that Shelby procured was also proposed by the president.
The magnitude of this year’s projects was small compared with 2010, the last time Congress used earmarks. Lawmakers disclosed 11,320 of them worth $32 billion that year, according to the Congressional Research Service, Congress’ nonpartisan research agency. Though the numbers aren’t exactly comparable due to differing methodologies, earmarks that year consumed nearly 2.5% of federal agency budgets, while this year’s are about half of 1% of the total.
Even so, there was plenty of room to spread this year’s money around.
Around 3 in 4 House members and 64 of the 100 senators got projects, according to the Taxpayers organization. So did the non-voting House members from the District of Columbia and four of the five represented U.S. territories.
California’s $757 million was the highest total for any state, the Taxpayers group found. Largely due to Shelby, Alabama was next at $542 million—though its population is roughly one-eighth of California’s 39 million people.
There was even room to reward lawmakers who opposed the overall legislation.
Of the 106 House Republicans with projects in the bill, 70 voted against either or both sections of the legislation yet still collected spending worth $946 million, according to Taxpayers. That included 14 who opposed both parts of the measure yet still got $187 million. In an unusual procedure, the House divided the bill into distinct security and non-security segments and approved both separately.
Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., voted against both portions of the legislation yet won projects worth $45 million, among the House’s highest figures. He said he didn’t like the overall bill’s size and its lack of money for his state to recover from recent hurricanes.
“I’m supposed to say I didn’t vote for the bill, so I’m not going to go work projects for our district?” said Graves, who won funds for water projects and sugar cane research. “No, that’s not what our job is.”
Five GOP senators who opposed the bill received projects worth $386 million, the Taxpayers group’s figures show: John Boozman of Arkansas, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Mike Rounds of South Dakota.
And 6 of 15 House Democrats who voted against the security part of the legislation had projects in that section, though they totaled just $9 million. No House Democrats opposed the non-security provisions.
Favorable treatment for such lawmakers is befuddling to old-school lawmakers.
If someone was opposing legislation bearing a project they’d requested, “I’d explain to them that by and large, if they ever wanted an earmark again they’d vote for the bill,” former Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., said in a recent interview. He chaired the House Appropriations Committee in the 1990s.
Even Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., perhaps Congress’ most notorious recent mutineer, did well. He backed the $1.5 trillion bill last month, but in December famously opposed Biden’s earlier social and environment legislation, sinking it.
Rather than being punished by Democratic leaders for upending what was the party’s top legislative goal, the spending bill Biden signed had 86 West Virginia projects Manchin requested worth $164 million. That included $22 million he and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., won for water treatment for the city of Weirton.
Capitol Hill veterans suggested Manchin was treated well because Democrats will need him this year in the evenly divided Senate, including in efforts to revive Biden’s prized domestic bill.
“Anybody focused on the past and not the future is not much of a legislator,” said Scott Lilly, a former top House Democratic aide.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also was not listed as having projects. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., got a handful worth $11 million, largely for low-income housing and other social initiatives in her hometown of San Francisco.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., notched $167 million for his state. House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., garnered projects worth a relatively modest $14 million, but none were listed for Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, top Republican on that House panel.
Even so, a Granger press release said she’d “secured major funding” for her area with money to build jet fighters, combat drug abuse and battle feral hogs.
“I’m going to choose my words very carefully here. Let’s just say that as a rule, senior members do rather well in the appropriations process,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a veteran member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Of five senators facing tough reelection races this fall, three Democrats received at least $81 million each in projects: Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Raphael Warnock of Georgia. Two others, Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., requested and received none.
While McCarthy wasn’t listed as getting projects, his top two lieutenants were. No. 2 leader Steve Scalise, R-La., got $31 million, including $5 million for Louisiana State University aerospace research. No. 3 GOP leader Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., won $35 million, including sharing credit with Schumer and Gillibrand for improving Fort Drum’s $27 million water project.
No. 2 Senate Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois had $182 million while No. 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland landed $13 million.