Earmarks in Senate bills favor small states, retiring senators

Of $8.2 billion in home-district projects included in the House’s spending bills, nearly 43 percent would go to five large states

Hawaii Democratic Sens. Mazie K. Hirono and Brian Schatz are carrying on the late Hawaii Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s legacy of earmarking prowess. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Hawaii Democratic Sens. Mazie K. Hirono and Brian Schatz are carrying on the late Hawaii Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s legacy of earmarking prowess. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 3, 2022 at 5:29am

Appropriations bills for the upcoming fiscal year unveiled in the Senate last week contain more than 3,100 earmarks totaling almost $7.8 billion, with Sen. Richard C. Shelby once again the uncontested champion of what senators have rebranded “congressionally directed spending.”

The retiring Alabama Republican, also the ranking member on Senate Appropriations, pulled in $656.4 million across four of the bills, which in general he and other Republicans oppose because of what they consider excess spending and partisan policy riders. 

Altogether, Shelby and 15 other Senate Republicans who requested earmarks obtained almost $3.4 billion of the total, or nearly 44 percent. The entire Democratic Caucus other than Montana’s Jon Tester and New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan — 48 in all, including two independents — secured just under $4 billion. The remainder were bipartisan requests.

Much of Shelby’s haul comes from the Transportation-HUD bill, which overall contained the highest earmarked dollar amount at $2 billion. 

He also secured $80 million in the Commerce-Justice-Science bill for two large National Institute of Standards and Technology construction projects, one at Marion Military Institute and one at the University of Alabama. There’s also $161 million for three projects in the Labor-HHS-Education bill, two for health care facilities and equipment at Spring Hill College and one at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Heersink School of Medicine; a third would support a permanent endowment fund at UAB. 

The Senate’s Labor-HHS-Education bill contains the largest number of individual earmarks at 906, totaling $1.34 billion, third-most among the bills after Transportation-HUD and Military Construction-VA at almost $1.85 billion. The “milcon” bill has nearly $1.5 billion more earmarked dollars than the House-passed version, partly because there’s more money to go around in the Senate bills for defense-related spending than in their House counterparts.

After Shelby, another retiring Republican, Oklahoma’s James M. Inhofe, also broke the half-billion mark, coming in at No. 2 overall among senators for total congressionally directed spending. Inhofe, the top Republican on Senate Armed Services, got the lion’s share of his earmarked dollars in the Military Construction-VA bill for bases in his home state.

Next is Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, with just under a half-billion dollars’ worth of earmarks, including $115 million spread across 48 projects in the Interior-Environment bill. Murkowski is the top Republican on that Appropriations subcommittee, and she secured by far the most earmarked funds in the Interior-Environment bill.

Alaska, Hawaii stand tall 

Murkowski’s largesse and that of Hawaii’s Democratic senators, Transportation-HUD Subcommittee Chair Brian Schatz and Mazie K. Hirono, put their states in the upper echelon of congressionally directed spending recipients in the Senate bills. Hawaii would receive the second-most dollars, at $549 million, behind only Alabama; Murkowski’s nearly $490 million puts Alaska at No. 4, behind Alabama and Hawaii and just shy of Oklahoma.

It’s a performance reminiscent of legendary Senate appropriators Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, both of whom served as full committee chairs and were never shy about delivering for their remote states.

Rounding out the top five is Missouri, thanks to retiring GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, ranking member on Labor-HHS-Education. Of Blunt’s $350 million in earmarks, $185 million comes from his subcommittee’s bill, more than any other senator in that legislation, mainly for Health Resources and Services Administration-funded projects at various state colleges and universities.

After the Hawaii Democrats, Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., obtained the largest amount of earmarked dollars for his home state among his party, securing $212.5 million. Big-ticket earmarks inserted by the retiring Leahy include $34 million for Burlington International Airport renovations and $30 million for the University of Vermont’s Honors College.

Triumph of the minority

In many ways, the Senate spending bills represent a triumph of small states over their more populous compatriots, reflecting the design of the Senate itself dating back to the Constitutional Convention. 

It’s the House where to the majority of the populace go the spoils when it comes to congressional representation, as well as earmarks. 

Of $8.2 billion in home-district projects included in the House’s spending bills, nearly 43 percent would go to five large states: California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois, in that order. California would receive almost $1.2 billion; Texas, at No. 2, nearly $800 million; followed by Florida with $707 million; New York at $494 million; and Illinois at $334 million. 

California is no slouch in the Senate bills either, with almost $312 million secured largely by Energy-Water Appropriations Chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., along with fellow California Democrat Alex Padilla.

But that’s only good enough for No. 7 on the list, behind little Maine with 3 percent of California’s population. That’s thanks mainly to Maine Republican Susan Collins, the Transportation-HUD ranking member and likely successor to Shelby next year in the full committee.

Meanwhile, New York is well down the Senate’s list of top states for earmarks at 16th; Illinois is ranked 23rd in that chamber.

Texas and Florida will need all the help they can get from their House delegations, as their GOP senators didn’t request any earmarks. 

And with total earmarks spread across both chambers’ spending bills at roughly $16 billion, before removing some overlapping House-Senate requests, there’s a good chance the final spending bills can accommodate both chambers’ projects. That’s because $16 billion would be within the 1 percent ceiling on total discretionary funds set aside for earmarks across the dozen bills. 

It doesn’t hurt the Texans’ and Floridians’ cause that a number of their largest projects are for military bases, given the total amount of defense-related spending in bicameral talks is likely to grow. 

It might not be as easy for House members’ full nondefense project requests to make it into the final bills, however, since the Senate bills have $13.5 billion less overall for domestic and foreign aid accounts. And that’s after adding $20 billion overall on top of the House spending bills, a figure Republicans might take issue with even if the money was used to boost Pentagon and other defense spending.

That’s if appropriators can agree on final spending bills at all, given the ongoing divide over topline spending levels and policy issues.

But retiring senators like Shelby, Inhofe, Blunt and Leahy certainly have reason to try, given it might be their states’ last chance to secure a similar inflow of federal earmark dollars if Republicans take control in the midterms and do away with the practice.  

Herb Jackson contributed to this report.