Skip to content

GOP primaries could signal direction of party’s earmarks stance

'Community project funding' poses political, philosophical quandary for Republicans running for reelection

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., says lawmakers know how to spend money in their districts better than agency bureaucrats.
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., says lawmakers know how to spend money in their districts better than agency bureaucrats. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

​Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., secured nearly $11.6 million in earmarked projects for his constituents in the March omnibus appropriations law, from streetscape improvements in Gillespie to a new nursing school facility at Millikin University in Decatur.

Davis didn’t issue any press releases touting his influence. And he ultimately voted against those projects, under an arcane procedure House leaders used allowing Republicans to vote for defense and security-related components of the fiscal 2022 package, including aid to Ukraine, but against nondefense and social spending.

Davis’ quiet success bringing home earmarks — which House Democrats have renamed “community project funding” — comes as he’s locked in a primary battle against Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., who’s competing in the same district under their state’s new map.

Miller, by contrast, is a Freedom Caucus member backed by former President Donald Trump and the lone member of the Illinois delegation not to request earmarks last year.

The Illinois race isn’t the only GOP-against-GOP primary pitting an earmarker against a Trump-backed opponent who eschewed the practice.

West Virginia’s primaries will see GOP Rep. David B. McKinley, who secured $7.2 million in the omnibus either on his own or with help from his state’s senators, against Alex X. Mooney, who didn’t ask for or receive “community project funding.”

Like Davis, McKinley didn’t crow about his projects publicly, and he voted against not only the nondefense part of the omnibus but also the defense spending portion, as did Mooney.

The primaries have implications for the future of earmarks, which might have a short shelf life if Republicans win the midterms and take back control of the House.

While earmarks themselves have not emerged as an issue in either primary thus far, the results of the primaries could reflect which direction the party is trending, with voters choosing between lawmakers who can point to projects they secured and Trump-endorsed representatives who object to earmarked spending. 

McKinley’s vote in support of the bipartisan infrastructure law — and the funding he has brought home as a result, even though that measure didn’t contain earmarks — has emerged as a major issue in his primary fight with Mooney. 

[McKinley-Mooney primary weighs West Virginia roots against Trump support]

“It’ll be interesting to follow that primary to see if voters are supportive of members voting for money for their district, even if it means increasing the deficit and the debt,” Mark Harkins, a longtime Hill staffer who focuses on appropriations for Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute. 

House GOP schism

Democrats brought back earmarks last year after a decadelong ban on the practice instituted by Republicans in 2011 following ethics scandals and calls to lower spending. 

Under the new process implemented by House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., members are required to publicly post the projects they request and certify that neither members nor their families would benefit financially. But the House GOP Conference split nearly down the middle on the subject, with just over half its members securing earmarks this fiscal year.

In the Illinois race, redistricting has pitted Davis, first elected in 2012, against Miller, a freshman who chose to run in the new 15th Congressional District rather than take on fellow incumbent GOP Rep. Mike Bost in the redrawn district she currently lives in.

Davis’ earmarks included $2 million for Decatur’s Millikin University School of Nursing to construct its own building and $3 million for the city of Gillespie — with a population just over 3,000 — for water and sewer work, sidewalks and other infrastructure projects downtown. 

Nearly $4 million will go toward drinking water-related projects across the district, with airport and health care facilities also receiving funding. 

“These are the types of projects that I’m willingly posting in a very transparent way, because my community leaders come to me as their member of Congress and ask how I can help them,” he said. 

While he said his office aims to point community members looking for funding to existing authorities in the federal government like grant programs, some aren’t eligible. 

“There are some communities that are left behind, and this is our chance to be able to ensure that we address those community needs,” he said. 

Davis said since the money will be spent regardless, members of Congress are better able than federal agencies to direct that funding.  

“I think members of Congress are able to address their constituents’ needs better than a bureaucrat sitting over at U.S. [Department of Transportation] who probably cares more about the gender identity of a piece of gravel than they do getting a project and a new road built in central Illinois,” he said.

Davis said he submitted more projects for the fiscal 2023 cycle before the deadline last week and supports keeping the process in place if Republicans take back the House. 

“I wouldn’t participate in the process if I didn’t think it was a worthwhile process for the constituents I serve and for the taxpayers of this country,” he said. 

‘Currency of corruption’

Miller and Mooney didn’t respond to requests for comment. But both are backed by the anti-spending Club for Growth.  

“Earmarks are the currency of corruption in the D.C. Swamp and are part of the reason why Americans are being punished with higher prices on everything from gas to groceries,” David McIntosh, the president of Club for Growth Action, said in a statement. “Voters understand this and will not vote for RINOs who support Democrats’ big-spending agenda.”

Chris Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he wouldn’t be surprised if earmarks come up in the campaign. He and Alex Mooney, the congressman, are not related.

Davis, who was a staffer for former GOP Rep. John Shimkus, is a “classic, constituent service congressman,” Chris Mooney said. 

“He’s a staffer at heart, and that means he wants to bring home the bacon but also be at every rubber chicken dinner and vet parade. Everyone knows Rodney Davis, and that’s the approach he has taken,” he said. “He will almost certainly tout those as accomplishments. It would be hard to imagine him not, because that’s his world, that’s what he does.” 

Miller is unlikely to hit Davis on earmarks as arguing against specific projects in the district is a “loser argument,” Chris Mooney added.

“It’s easy to say, ‘That ‘bridge to nowhere’ in Alaska is [expletive] up,’” he said, referring to a massive and ultimately scrapped 2005 project that brought heaps of negative attention to the earmarking process. “It’s hard to say this bridge on I-46, in my district, shouldn’t be there, because everyone likes that bridge.” 

The professor said he believes Davis is the favorite in the race, but if Trump were to visit Illinois and campaign hard for Miller, the calculus would change. Miller visited Mar-a-Lago last week and tweeted a picture with Trump, and she told NBC News that Trump would be stumping for her.  

‘Seat at the table’

McKinley’s omnibus projects include $3 million to build an access road in Weirton, population of just under 20,000. He also secured $1.1 million to replace a water line serving 250 modular homes in Weirton and procured other funding for water systems, health care and redeveloping blighted areas in the district. 

“The money’s already going to be spent; the question is do you want the agency to allocate it, or do you want us to have a seat at the table,” McKinley said.

McKinley said he’d be submitting requests for the upcoming fiscal year as well, focusing on infrastructure. “We voted for the infrastructure bill; we want to complete that and augment even more work we have been able to identify,” he said. 

McKinley said his primary opponent had not made community project funding an issue in the campaign thus far, although Mooney has blasted his vote for the infrastructure bill. A Mooney campaign advertisement said McKinley supported President Joe Biden’s “billion-dollar spending spree that’s creating record inflation.” 

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchinn III is backing McKinley, and he helped obtain four out of the 10 earmarks McKinley requested. In an ad, Manchin said Mooney’s efforts to tie McKinley to Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan is “an outright lie.” 

West Virginia voters appreciated legendary Senate earmarker Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat, for directing federal funds to the state. Nonetheless, Republicans have done an excellent job convincing voters that Democratic leadership in Washington is causing the state’s woes, according to John Kilwein, a political science professor at West Virginia University.

“Even though they are different parties, he is working out of that kind of Byrd playbook that I’m gonna get with the state needs, because the state needs a lot,” Kilwein said. 

Chris Marquette contributed to this report.

Recent Stories

Strange things are afoot at the Capitol

Photos of the week ending May 24, 2024

Getting down on the Senate floor — Congressional Hits and Misses

US-China tech race will determine values that shape the future

What’s at stake in Texas runoff elections on Tuesday

Democrats decry ‘very, very harmful’ riders in Legislative Branch bill