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Conservative faction’s earmark requests illustrate GOP divide

Majority of Republican Study Committee members requested projects this year even as group's budget calls for ban

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., doesn't want to cede federal spending decisions to the Biden administration.
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., doesn't want to cede federal spending decisions to the Biden administration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Republican Study Committee, the traditional bastion of conservative thought within the House Republican Conference, has taken an official position on the practice of earmarking funds in spending bills for lawmakers’ districts: It’s opposed.

To drive that point home, the fiscal 2023 budget blueprint that the 158-member group — representing about three-fourths of the conference — released earlier this month calls for an outright ban on the special home-state projects.

“Earmarks divert taxpayer resources to special interests, grease the wheels of Washington’s spending machine and set a poor example of fiscal responsibility,” reads the plan unveiled by RSC Chairman Jim Banks, R-Ind., and the group’s Budget and Spending Task Force.

But of the 16 signatories on that budget plan, six have themselves requested earmarks during the fiscal 2023 appropriations process that got off the ground last week: Reps. Byron Donalds of Florida, Fred Keller of Pennsylvania and Trent Kelly of Mississippi and Texas Reps. Troy Nehls, August Pfluger and Beth Van Duyne.

Within the broader group of RSC members, CQ Roll Call tallied up 83 who submitted requests this year for “community project funding,” as House Democrats have rebranded earmarks. That’s over half of the group’s membership, which underscores the ambivalence within the Republican Party over the long-reviled practice that returned last year after more than a decade.

The RSC budget plan is a sweeping yet nonbinding blueprint that calls for drastic changes: It envisions balancing the budget within seven years, all from nondefense programs as military spending would rise and taxes would be cut.

In short, there’s a lot for conservatives to like in the document, and it’s clear even some of its signatories weren’t endorsing every facet of it — such as the earmark ban.

Most of the budget plan’s sponsors didn’t respond to requests for comment. But Donalds couched his position on the topic as necessary to ensure proper oversight of taxpayer dollars.

“Why would I let the Biden administration decide where dollars are getting spent?” Donalds said in an interview. “They don’t know what they are doing over there.”

Growing support

The number of Republican earmark requesters grew in fiscal 2023, with 121 House Republicans requesting the rebranded “community project funding.” This represents nearly 60 percent of the conference and is up from 109 requesters a year earlier.

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

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., reintroduced the practice with revamped transparency rules and a cap at 1 percent of discretionary spending last year.

Just 16 of 50 Senate Republicans have requested earmarks since they were restored, a figure that appears likely to decrease next year with high-profile retirements. Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said last week that some Republicans are pushing to strip earmarks out of the ongoing fiscal 2023 negotiations, even before they potentially take control of one or both chambers.

[GOP Senate retirements could spell trouble for earmarks’ future]

A freshman who didn’t request earmarks last year, Donalds led the pack of RSC budget signatories who requested earmarks with $72.7 million, largely driven by a $50 million request for terminal expansion work at Southwest Florida International Airport near Fort Myers. He also sought funding for a sewer project in Naples and a community center for at-risk youth in Fort Myers, among other requests.

Donalds said he gained familiarity with member projects while serving in the Florida Legislature and said members are better than bureaucrats at weighing which projects in their districts deserve funding.

He said he signed on to the RSC budget long before the “community project funding” process began and had been weighing whether to request earmarks for a while.

“Where I come down is, when I was in the state Legislature, state legislatures do the exact same thing,” Donalds said. “Congress has given more of its authority to the executive branch, which in my view is not in the original intent of separation of powers.”

Van Duyne requested $41.6 million for fiscal 2023, including $10 million for projects at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. In the current year’s funding law, Van Duyne secured $15 million for three projects at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, two of which she was a co-sponsor on.

Van Duyne said in a statement that earmarks return power to local leaders from the administration. She said she established a community project funding board and invited every elected official in the district to participate in the process.

“I know the history of earmarks is one with problems and backdoor deals and no transparency,” she said. “Let me assure you that this is not the case in North Texas. This funding has already been budgeted for local projects and if we do not ask to allocate it to specific, effective projects, the Left will have no problem spending it in California or New York.”

Van Duyne worked to ensure the process is locally driven and transparent, spokesman Jack Colonnetta said in an emailed statement.

“Regarding the RSC budget, the Congresswoman is certainly not for earmarks as they were previously used,” Colonnetta said. “However, if there is a process in place, Beth feels it’s her responsibility as a representative to use it responsibly to allocate needed funding for North Texas that otherwise would be sent elsewhere or left on the table altogether.”

‘Issue No. 400’

Kelly requested $32.5 million in earmarks for fiscal 2023, including $9 million for a sewer project in his district and $8 million to dredge the Yalobusha River, which is west of Calhoun City, Miss. Last year, Kelly received $7.2 million, including $5 million for a highway project in Oxford.

Pfluger, who didn’t request earmarks last year, asked for $14.8 million, leading with $7 million for a highway overpass in Odessa.

Keller, who also didn’t request earmarks last year, had a single request, $8 million for improvements to the Great Williamsport Levee, while Nehls had three requests totaling just $2.75 million, primarily $2 million for a road widening project in Pearland, Texas. Last year, Nehls received $6.2 million, primarily for road expansion projects.

Earmarks for seven of the fiscal 2023 House appropriations bills had been released as of Tuesday.

Keller so far has received the $8 million he sought for the Williamsport project. Kelly has secured $19.1 million in earmarks, including $10 million extra tacked onto an Army Corps of Engineers request for a flood control project in Grenada Lake, Miss. Donalds has gotten $14.8 million worth of his requests in so far, including $5 million for a water project in Bonita Springs in southwest Florida. Pfluger has procured $500,000 for wildfire mitigation programs at Texas A&M University. Requests from Van Duyne and Nehls haven’t been funded yet.

The RSC budget was clear in its condemnation of earmarks, citing data from the practice’s previous iteration that showed appropriators received a disproportionate number of earmarks. “Earmarks inevitably flow to the districts of the most powerful and connected members of Congress,” the blueprint says.

Donalds said he didn’t know if Republicans would keep earmarks in the next Congress if the party takes control of the chamber after the midterms.

“If you’re going to talk about earmarks, it’s like issue No. 400 right now,” he said. “We’ll see what happens; the members will decide that.”

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