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GOP Senate retirements could spell trouble for earmarks’ future

Support for the practice among Senate Republicans already tepid, could dwindle next year

Sen. James M. Inhofe is seen in the Capitol during a Senate vote on Feb. 15.
Sen. James M. Inhofe is seen in the Capitol during a Senate vote on Feb. 15. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

​The Senate Republican Conference will lose some prolific earmarkers to retirement next year, as the party faces some soul-searching over whether to keep the practice if they retake one or both chambers after November’s midterms.

Thus far in the upcoming fiscal 2023 appropriations process, Alabama’s Richard C. Shelby has sought nearly $664 million and Missouri’s Roy Blunt has asked for about $685 million. Those totals don’t include any requests for the Interior-Environment spending bill, which hadn’t been posted as of Monday evening.

Not to be outdone, Oklahoma’s James M. Inhofe is seeking nearly $900 million. Another retiring Senate earmarker, North Carolina’s Richard M. Burr, has asked for almost $224 million worth of projects. Inhofe and Burr had each posted their requests for all the bills which are available for home-state projects by Monday evening.

Just 16 Senate Republicans have requested earmarks for fiscal 2023, same as last year, in contrast to growing support among House Republicans. 

[Earmark fans grow among House GOP as total requests swell]

But Burr and Blunt appear likely to be replaced by candidates who oppose the practice, and Shelby and Inhofe also could find themselves succeeded by anti-earmark senators when the dust settles in primaries to replace them. Three of the four seats are considered safe GOP holds; Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the North Carolina race “Lean Republican.”

If the Republicans capture the Senate, which is currently evenly divided, it may be difficult for leadership to continue a practice so unpopular in their ranks.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has called for an earmark ban in his 12-point policy agenda, and the Senate Republican Conference still technically has an informal, nonbinding ban in its rules dating back to 2019.

Inhofe said he’s proud of his efforts to deliver funding his state would not have received otherwise. If replaced by an anti-earmark candidate, Inhofe said the money would end up elsewhere. 

“That money would go to other states,” he said. “People know that, they just don’t want to admit it.” 

Inhofe went all in with his fiscal 2023 requests, asking for $899 million. He requested a total of $231 million for Oklahoma City’s Tinker Air Force Base, including $114 million for a corrosion control dock to maintain the KC-46A, a refueling and transport aircraft, and $90 million for two KC-46A depot maintenance docks.

Inhofe, who isn’t on Appropriations but is the top Republican on Senate Armed Services, was also among the most successful fiscal 2022 earmarkers, securing $99 million in the March omnibus.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., a leading candidate to replace Inhofe, hasn’t requested earmarks in this Congress. 

But he spoke in support of the House’s new earmarking system in an interview with Oklahoma City’s KWTV-DT television station last year. At the time, Mullin said members of Congress are better equipped than federal bureaucrats about where funding should go in their districts, and praised new transparency rules. Mullin’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. 

Other candidates in the race are former Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon, State Sen. Nathan Dahm, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Inhofe’s former Chief of Staff Luke Holland. None of their campaigns responded to a request for comment. 

‘Worthy’ projects

Burr, who also isn’t on Appropriations, has requested nearly $224 million for fiscal 2023. That includes $83.3 million for projects at Fort Bragg, including $36 million to construct a child care center at the base, and $26.9 million for highway improvements in Buncombe County. 

“I only request things I think are worthy,” said Burr, who secured $116 million worth of projects in the fiscal 2022 omnibus.

His would-be GOP successor, Rep. Ted Budd, couldn’t have a more different view. Last year Budd introduced legislation that would permanently ban earmarks.

“Nothing epitomizes what’s wrong with Washington more than pork-barrel spending in the form of congressional earmarks,” Budd said in a statement at the time.

However, Budd “aggressively” pursues competitive grant money for his district and would continue to do so in the Senate, his senior adviser Jonathan Felts said in a statement. 

Budd believes funding should be “proposed individually on the House floor or the funding should be secured via a competitive grant program” instead of earmarked, Felts said. 

‘Big stuff’

Alabama’s Senate race is pitting Shelby’s former Chief of Staff Katie Britt, who received former President Donald Trump’s endorsement Friday, against Rep. Mo Brooks in a runoff for the safe Republican seat. Britt received 44.7 percent of the vote in the initial primary, far ahead of Brooks’ 29.2 percent. 

Shelby, the top Republican on Senate Appropriations, secured a whopping $548 million in solo projects in fiscal 2022, with an additional $3 million he shared credit for with Rep. Jerry Carl, R-Ala. For fiscal 2023, Shelby’s $664 million requests thus far include $200 million for the Alabama State Port Authority and $100 million for a highway project in Tuscaloosa. 

“I’m proud of it, and if you look at them, they are well received by the people,” Shelby said. “They are all big stuff.” 

[In the game of earmarks, Shelby has no peers]

Britt’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment, though her close ties to Shelby suggest she could join the ranks of Republicans pursuing earmarks. Brooks has not requested earmarks, and voted against the nondefense portion of the fiscal 2022 omnibus in March.

“As is so often the case, our bipartisan, debt-junkie ‘leaders’ require Congress to approve spending bills that are full of pet projects, pork barrel earmarks, and bloated government programs days before a funding deadline,” Brooks said in a statement at the time.  

Swan song in Missouri?

Blunt has requested $685 million for fiscal 2023, including $65 million for a project to “deck over” four blocks of Interstate 670 in Kansas City “to create an enhanced, green mobility hub enabling multimodal transportation options, regional job access, green and healthy living space, private development, and a climate responsive design.” Blunt is the top Republican on Senate Labor-HHS-Education appropriations.

It’s not clear Blunt’s successor will look as favorably on earmarks. Campaign staff for former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who’s ahead in recent polls, didn’t respond to request for comment; he’s running as an “America First” outsider and refers to Washington as a “swamp,” similar to anti-earmark crusaders.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who’s running second or third behind Greitens in recent polls, opposes earmarks, according to his campaign.

Aides to Rep. Vicky Hartzler, who’s also either in second or third depending on the poll, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Hartzler hasn’t requested any appropriations earmarks this year or last, though she submitted requests last year for the House version of surface transportation authorizing legislation. That measure’s earmarks were stripped out of what became the Senate-negotiated bipartisan infrastructure law.

Missouri Rep. Billy Long, who is running a distant fourth in recent polling, has requested earmarks in this Congress, despite running against earmarks during his first campaign in 2010 at a time when the popular backlash against the practice was strong. Long’s office did not respond to a request for comment. 

Pickup opportunities

If Republicans are able to retake the Senate, it will be because they were able to knock off vulnerable incumbents like Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly, who is among all but two members of his caucus that seek earmarks.

Blake Masters, the venture capitalist who recently received Trump’s endorsement in Arizona, “opposes earmarks and believes the pork barrel approach to lawmaking is terrible,” his campaign manager, Amalia C. Halikias, said in a statement. Masters has been trailing in recent polls but as one GOP consultant told the Arizona Mirror, Trump’s endorsement could be “rocket fuel” for Masters’ candidacy.

Two other Republican pickup opportunities are in Georgia, where former football star Herschel Walker is taking on Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, and in Nevada, where former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt is the current favorite in Tuesday’s GOP primary for the right to square off against Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto

It’s not clear whether GOP earmarkers would gain any support if those seats flip.

The Trump-endorsed Walker’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did aides to the Laxalt campaign. The latter has also won Trump’s endorsement as well as backing from Club for Growth, an advocacy group that campaigns for smaller government and opposes earmarks. Club for Growth has also endorsed earmark foes Budd, Brooks and Masters.

In the New Hampshire Senate race, there’s little chance for earmark backers to grow their ranks. Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, whose race is rated “Tilt Democratic” by Inside Elections, is one of just two caucus members to avoid earmarks. The other is Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who’s up in 2024.

Candidates to face Hassan include retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc and former Londonderry town manager Kevin Smith. They both oppose earmarking, according to their campaigns. 

Earmarks are “emblematic of the special interest corruption in Washington and another reason why we need to save America from the socialist policies that have put our country into a tailspin,” Smith said in a statement.

New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse is also a leading contender for the GOP nomination; his campaign staff didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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