Lawmakers load omnibus spending package with earmarks

After an 11-year drought, congressional earmarks are back with vengeance.

The $1.5 trillion, 2,741-page omnibus spending package is loaded with funding for lawmaker pet projects, some of which could help incumbents in this fall’s elections.

The legislation includes more than 4,000 earmarks, according to a list of projects provided by a Senate Republican aide that spanned 367 pages.

“There’s been a decade of pent-up desire to get back to earmarks and you’re seeing some of that come to fruition, particularly those people who were writing the appropriations bills, dealing with all of those type of issues and then not getting the gravy they certainly did earlier in their career,” said Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that tracks federal spending.

Many lawmakers had decided not to request earmarks in this year’s appropriations package, but those who did scooped up big rewards for their constituents.

One of the biggest winners was New York — thanks to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is up for reelection this year.

Schumer’s name is attached to 59 earmarks totaling nearly $80 million in the omnibus’s transportation and housing and urban development (HUD) section alone. He successfully requested funding for the projects either individually or with other lawmakers from his home state.

Some of the earmarks provide millions of dollars more than what the Biden administration requested. The omnibus includes $5.9 million for Dunkirk Harbor on Lake Erie, $5 million more than the $680,000 requested by the administration.

Schumer, who is presiding over his first omnibus spending package as majority leader, also helped secure another 10 earmarks totaling nearly $11 million in the energy and water development section.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who is closely tracking the number of earmarks in the package, said he counted a total of 142 earmarks linked to Schumer’s name in the massive package.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are scrambling to figure out what’s in the bill, which didn’t become available to the public until early Wednesday morning. Lawmakers and the general public had little idea of what earmarks would be included in the package before the final vote, which leaders hope to hold before 11:59 p.m. Friday to prevent a government shutdown.

Senate Republicans agreed during a private meeting in April 2021 to keep in place their conference rule banning earmarks. But GOP aides at the time noted its rules are nonbinding.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in contrast to Schumer, did not request congressional earmarks, according to a senior Republican aide.

But other Republicans, including Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, requested plenty.

“I think it’s terrible,” said Braun. “I think it’s emblematic of what’s wrong with the whole place, especially when you look at the top-line numbers that are out there and the record spending that we’re going to be putting forward in this omnibus bill.”

But defenders of earmarks argue that if lawmakers can’t request earmarks, it gives executive branch officials disproportionate power to choose which projects get funded. They also point out that including lawmakers’ pet projects gives them “skin in the game” and more incentive to vote for government funding bills.

“To say congressmen or senators have no right to earmark funds is to extract elected officials from the flow of legislation that should exist between state and local people who identify needs at the local level and then federal people who have the resources to meet those needs,” said James Dyer, the former Republican staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. “People who are against these things are living in the past.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Shelby, who negotiated the package, steered tens of millions of dollars’ worth of earmarks to their home states.

Both senior appropriators plan to retire from Congress at the end of the year after a combined total of 92 years of service in the Senate and House.

“By our quick analysis Sen. Shelby had only 16 earmarks but they totaled nearly $650 million,” said Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Whereas by our count, Sen. Leahy got 79 earmarks worth $162.2 million.”

Shelby’s name is attached to three earmarks totaling $300 million in the transportation and housing development section of the omnibus package, and nine earmarks totaling $139 million in the energy and water development section.

Leahy helped nail down 11 earmarks worth about $27 million in the transportation and HUD section and six earmarks worth about $20.6 million in the energy and water section.

Other senators who racked up earmarks in the spending package are facing tough reelection races this year, including Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).

Kelly helped secure 12 earmarks related to transportation and HUD, about $11 million, and four earmarks related to energy and water projects worth $800,000, according to summaries provided by the Appropriations committees.

Cortez Masto successfully requested 15 transportation and HUD-related earmarks totaling $34.9 million and a $3 million earmark for Lake Mead in the energy and water development section. The Biden administration requested only $595,000 for the Lake Mead project.

Centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has repeatedly raised concerns about the impact of more federal spending on inflation, scored a lot of money for West Virginia in the transportation; housing and urban development; and energy and water development titles of the spending package.

Manchin tallied 28 earmarks worth nearly $41 million in the transportation and housing section of the bill and four earmarks totaling $8.3 million in the energy and water development section.

The energy and water development title provides an additional $4 million for West Virginia’s “Coal Communities Regional Innovation Cluster’ and $2.96 million for the Mercer County gas line extension.

Manchin also helped secure an estimated $6 billion for his home state in the bipartisan infrastructure package he negotiated last year.

While the more than 4,000 earmarks in the omnibus spending bill sounds like a lot, the total is still fewer than the 9,000 earmarks included in the fiscal 2010 appropriations bills that passed before House Republicans adopted an earmark ban after taking over the lower chamber in the 2010 midterm election.

The new explosion in earmarks is drawing criticism from budget watchdog groups.

“It’s totally pork-barreling,” said Thomas Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, who estimated there are more than 4,400 earmarks in the sprawling bill.

Schatz noted that the total number of earmarks in the bill is probably lower than how many were included before the earmark ban went into effect 11 years ago “in part because a number of members, including a lot of Republicans, have said they’re not taking them.”

He said it’s better that appropriators are now clearly reporting which lawmakers have requested the various earmarks, but argued that doesn’t mean the practice of steering federal funds to towns, cities and states is a good idea.

“For at least some of them we can see which member of Congress has requested the earmark and do further investigation into where it is, what it’s doing, who it’s for,” he said. “We’re going to find more than what they listed.”

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