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Lawmakers happily embrace return of earmarks to highway bill

Lawmakers requested $14.9 billion in earmarks in the surface transportation bill, which is still being drafted

Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves, who led other Republicans in requests, asked for nearly $955.7 million in earmarks.
Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves, who led other Republicans in requests, asked for nearly $955.7 million in earmarks. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The last time Rep. Don Young was able to request earmarks in a surface transportation bill, it was 2005 and the Alaska Republican was asking for at least $557 million in earmarks, including money for what critics would later call “the Bridge to Nowhere.”

That proposed bridge to replace the ferry connecting Ketchikan, Alaska, to its airport on Gravina Island launched criticism that contributed to the eventual ban on earmarks in 2011. 

Young, then the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was one of the top requesters of earmarks for that year’s surface transportation law, according to the Eno Center for Transportation. This year, with earmarks scheduled to return in limited form, he is not even close to the top, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of requests to the Transportation panel.

Young requested $105.5 million for this year’s surface transportation reauthorization bill, including $19.2 million to construct a gravel road linking the Kotzebue Electric Association wind farm to Cape Blossom so up to 100 cars or commercial vehicles can use the road daily. Seventeen Democrats and four Republicans asked for even more money than Young did. 

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., who led other Republicans in requests, asked for nearly $955.7 million in earmarks, including three for one project: building a new bridge across the Mississippi River to connect two highways in Baton Rouge. Graves requested nearly $946 million for full federal funding for construction, as well as $1.6 million for an environmental evaluation and $8 million for pre-engineering design.

The new bridge, Graves wrote to House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., and ranking member Sam Graves, R-Mo., would improve transportation in Baton Rouge, which “is annually rated with some of the worst traffic nationwide, including the 18th worst truck bottleneck in the country.” 

Members hope their earmarks will be included in the reauthorization of a five-year surface transportation law enacted in 2015. A one-year extension of that law expires on Sept. 30. 

The surface transportation measure, known as the highway bill for short, typically authorizes spending on roads, bridges and public transit. DeFazio is also expected to add a title that would provide funding for passenger rail service upgrades and expansions.

Competitive seats

In all, House lawmakers requested $14.9 billion in earmarks in the surface transportation bill, which is still being drafted. More than 70 percent of the earmarks and funds requested came from Democrats, the CQ Roll Call analysis showed. By comparison, Republicans asked for about 25 percent of the projects, accounting for nearly 28 percent of the dollars.

It’s too early to know whether earmarks will be a talking point in the 2022 elections, as they were after a string of scandals in the early 2000s. But winning an earmark gives lawmakers the opportunity to say they delivered for their districts. 

Rep. Kim Schrier, who’s in her second term representing a district in western Washington state that was previously long held by Republicans, was tops among Democrats seeking highway bill earmarks. Schrier, who faces a potentially competitive reelection, requested $892 million for projects in her district.

She was followed by Democratic Reps. Sharice Davids of Kansas ($630 million) and Brian Higgins of New York ($584 million). Schrier, Davids and Higgins are all being targeted for defeat in 2022 by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Other Democrats targeted by the NRCC who led in the amount requested were Reps. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia ($186 million), Dean Phillips of Minnesota ($124 million) and Chris Pappas of New Hampshire ($111 million).

Even though Congress has been banned from requesting earmarks for a decade, not every lawmaker has asked for funding that would benefit their district. While 72 percent of House members requested earmarks in some form from the Appropriations Committee or the Transportation panel, 124 lawmakers did not request highway bill earmarks.

One of those, California Rep. Katie Porter, is the only Democrat who has not asked for highway bill or appropriation earmarks. She made her antipathy to them clear in a March 12 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, writing that earmarking “invites waste, fraud and abuse.” She cited examples of past lawmakers who exploited the process for their own benefit. 

In the lead-up to the release of the requests, DeFazio indicated that each member would be able to designate an equal amount, between $15 million and $20 million, for specific surface transportation projects regardless of whether they vote for or against the bill.

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