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Uncertainty swirls around earmarks for departed lawmakers

Outgoing members’ local projects in spending bills are potentially at risk if talks spill over into new year

Rep. Pat Ryan, above, is seeking to restore more than $21 million in “community project funding” that his predecessor, former Rep. Antonio Delgado, requested for his 19th Congressional District.
Rep. Pat Ryan, above, is seeking to restore more than $21 million in “community project funding” that his predecessor, former Rep. Antonio Delgado, requested for his 19th Congressional District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When former Rep. Antonio Delgado resigned his seat in May, he was lucky in one respect: The Democrat from central New York had been tapped to become his home state’s lieutenant governor.

But his constituents weren’t quite so fortunate, as none of the earmarks Delgado sought earlier in the spring ended up in the fiscal 2023 spending bills released by House appropriators in June.

Now Rep. Pat Ryan, D-N.Y., who narrowly won a special election in August to replace Delgado, is seeking to include in the final appropriations bills the $21 million-plus in “community project funding” that Delgado requested for his 19th District.

He wrote to House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, arguing that the projects had “received widespread community support and were appropriately vetted” before being sent to appropriators for review.

“When we invest strongly in our communities, we invest strongly in our economic growth, resiliency, and shared values,” Ryan wrote in his Oct. 11 letter. “It is for this reason that the communities of NY-19 deserve to be represented in this bill and future spending bills.” 

In a statement, Delgado defended the infrastructure, public housing, disability support and other projects he “fought for” while in Congress. 

“Now, with Congressman Ryan’s advocacy, we need to get this funding across the finish line,” Delgado said.

Ryan’s advocacy for Delgado’s requests — ranging from $2 million to build a new psychiatric unit at an Oneonta hospital to $150,000 for a “carbon neutral greenhouse” in rural Delaware County — comes as he fights to hang on to his newly won seat in November.

Ryan is running in the redrawn 18th Congressional District next door, in a race Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Lean Democratic. Delgado’s project requests, which Ryan has now picked up, are spread out among a few of the new New York districts, but a handful are in the new 18th.

Fate unknown

The New York situation isn’t unique amid uncertainty surrounding the status of earmarks for the handful of districts that have either turned over or are currently vacant.

Appropriators are also weighing how to handle projects that were included in House bills backed by members who have resigned more recently: Reps. Charlie Crist and Ted Deutch, both Florida Democrats. Crist resigned in August to focus on his run for Florida governor, while Deutch resigned at the end of September to become the CEO of the American Jewish Committee. 

With these members already out of office, their projects could be particularly in jeopardy, if the Delgado precedent is any guide.

Crist, a former Appropriations panel member, secured $21 million in the House bills, including $3.4 million for the University of South Florida to monitor pollution from emerging chemical threats in Tampa Bay, $3 million for a stormwater treatment facility in Pinellas County and $3 million for a Black history museum in St. Petersburg. 

Crist’s gubernatorial campaign did not respond to a request for comment, and the staff currently manning the office of Florida’s 13th District said it couldn’t comment.

Deutch had almost $22 million included in this year’s bills, including $5 million he co-sponsored with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., mainly for transportation and community development projects. Deutch declined to comment, citing the one-year ban on lobbying for former members. 

Ryan is one of a handful of new members who have been sworn in in recent months, along with fellow Democrat Mary Peltola of Alaska, who did not respond to a request for comment. Four Republicans have also been sworn in to fill vacancies, but their predecessors all resigned before this year’s earmark request deadline.

Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., who was killed in an August car crash, didn’t request earmarks.

Midterm fears

Outgoing members who are sticking around through the end of the year are also growing concerned about what happens to their earmarks if an omnibus agreement isn’t reached in December, when the current stopgap funding bill runs out.

“I really hope these projects can survive; they are really great projects, really important for our communities,” said Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich. “If they get pushed, I won’t have a formal say, but I hope they’ll survive.” 

[House spending bills spread around $8 billion worth of earmarks]

Levin got $19 million in funding into this year’s appropriations bills, mostly related to transportation and community development, including a public library addition, a new animal shelter and a major road reconstruction. Some of those projects are in his current district, with others in the new 11th District, where he lost to Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., in an August primary.

The House is possibly heading toward its first major period of turnover since Democrats brought back earmarks two years ago. Inside Elections pegs the potential gain for Republicans at somewhere between eight and 20 House seats, more than enough to retake the majority given the current five-seat margin.

Some outgoing members fear the loss of their projects for two related reasons. One, that Republicans will delay a final spending deal until next year when they assume control of one or both chambers, and two, they will decide to ax earmarks from that revised omnibus package.  

[Earmarks’ future unclear as Republicans split ahead of midterms]

Retiring Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., who chairs the House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, said he wouldn’t be optimistic about the fate of his projects if Republicans retake the majority and the omnibus is pushed off into next year.

“If we find ourselves beyond December with a [continuing resolution], then the projects are in great jeopardy,” Price said. 

Price received $36 million in the House bills, including two projects he co-sponsored with Rep. Deborah K. Ross, D-N.C. Price’s requests include new buses for the Chapel Hill transit system, runway replacement at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and requests for funding for hospitals and other health care facilities in Raleigh. 

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., the retiring Budget Committee chairman, said “hell, yes” he’s concerned about his projects in the event that full-year appropriations bills get punted into next year.

“There’s $18 million worth of projects that my community could really benefit from,” Yarmuth said. “If we lose the majority, and Republicans decide they don’t want to do community projects, then those are gone. And we worked really hard to do them.” 

Yarmuth said he doesn’t think outgoing members’ projects are at any greater risk than others’. “I think it would just be Republicans saying we don’t want to do them,” he said.

Money on the table

If earmarks are scrapped, lawmakers on both sides stand to leave about $16 billion in local projects on the table.

Total fiscal 2023 earmarked funding is tilted toward the majority Democrats, largely because many more of them requested local projects.

But GOP lawmakers still secured about 40 percent of the total in each chamber’s versions of the fiscal 2023 appropriations bills, or $6.4 billion. The top individual earmarkers in each chamber are Republicans; three retiring senators — Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and Roy Blunt of Missouri — are responsible for $1.5 billion of the total.

[Earmarks in Senate bills favor small states, retiring senators]

A House Democratic aide familiar with the process wouldn’t speculate on what happens to outgoing members’ earmarks if lawmakers resort to a longer-term stopgap funding bill in December, arguing they were focused on getting an omnibus deal.

“Any community project funding issues will be worked out by then,” the aide said.

The decision on what happens to outgoing senators’ projects next year if there’s no omnibus spending deal in the lame-duck session will be up to Senate Appropriations Committee leaders in the next Congress, a Senate panel aide said. However, when this happened in the past, the previous iterations of the bills’ earmarks were preserved, the aide noted. 

Before Republicans banned them in 2011, outgoing lawmakers received earmarks in appropriations bills in similar situations — even those surrounded in ethics controversies.

Former Rep. John T. Doolittle, R-Calif., decided not to run for reelection in 2008 while he and his wife were under FBI investigation in connection with the scandal involving ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, though charges were never brought. The former Appropriations panel member still had several earmark requests materialize in the fiscal 2009 omnibus package enacted in March of the following year.

Similarly, former Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill., secured earmarks in that law despite retiring amid legal and ethical troubles in 2008.

Given that history, some of the current crop of departing lawmakers are optimistic their projects will make the final cut, even if the full-year spending bills spill over into next year. That includes freshman Rep. Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, who has about $17.4 million at stake in the House bills.

“I think it would probably be honored as part of this Congress; I would hope as an outgoing member it would be,” said Kahele, who’s leaving after a failed bid to secure his party’s nomination for governor. “There are a lot of good projects out there.”

Peter Cohn contributed to this report.

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