Once again, Shelby stands alone when it comes to earmarks

Alabama Republican senator goes out on top, while Sen. Inhofe and Rep. Weber come on strong

Sen. Richard Shelby procured $1.2 billion in earmarks during the 117th Congress, including $10 million for the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to create “an institute on public service and leadership.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Richard Shelby procured $1.2 billion in earmarks during the 117th Congress, including $10 million for the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to create “an institute on public service and leadership.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 22, 2022 at 6:00am

Call him the billion-dollar man. 

Make that $1.2 billion, to be precise, which is the total earmark haul that departing Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby could bring home during the 117th Congress — the last of the Alabama Republican's congressional career dating back to 1979.

Shelby is clearly going out at the top of the charts for the second year in a row after lawmakers restored the once-reviled practice of parking federal funds in their own constituents' backyards. He procured a devilishly large $666 million in the fiscal 2023 omnibus package, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis, after roughly $550 million the previous fiscal year.

Shelby's total even grew slightly from the earlier round of Senate-introduced bills in July. He added $10 million in the final package that wasn't included previously for the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to create "an institute on public service and leadership, including a scholar's program."

Last year, Shelby announced that upon his departure from Washington he planned to donate his official Senate papers, records and materials to the university.

Shelby's papers would be a "catalyst for The University of Alabama to consider the creation of a new institute and new academic, leadership and scholarly research programs that would provide students, faculty and staff with opportunities to engage with prominent politicians and policy professionals," school officials said in a release.

Shelby spokeswoman Blair Taylor said it isn't unusual for the final versions of spending bills to contain earmarks that weren't in the initial versions. She added that whatever name the university bestows on the new institute, whether it includes "Shelby" or otherwise, will be up to the university.

Total earmarked funds across the sweeping bill's 7,234 projects, according to disclosures appropriators included, amount to $15.3 billion, well ahead of the prior year's $9 billion. 

Democrats, who make up the large majority of earmarkers, account for $8.6 billion of the total, or $1.7 million, on average, across 5,094 separate line items. Republicans spread $6.1 billion across 1,791 earmarks, or nearly $3.4 million per project.

The remainder are bipartisan requests and those submitted by the few independents on Capitol Hill. 

With hundreds of House lawmakers securing projects, that chamber is solely responsible for nearly $7.6 billion of the total haul. But the mere 64 Senate earmarkers accounted for $7 billion on their own, with the remainder joint House-Senate requests.

Of course, Congress first has to clear the mega spending package, which late Wednesday was snarled in the Senate due to a partisan fight over the pandemic-era border restrictions known as Title 42.

'Most improved earmarker'

The award for "most improved earmarker" has to go to retiring Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who takes the second-place overall prize for projects secured without help from other members, coming in just shy of a half-billion dollars. That's a fivefold jump from fiscal 2022, when Inhofe's total was only $99 million, good enough for just 12th place in the Senate.

But a very close "honorable mention" has to go to Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, who at $287.5 million worth of projects blows away the rest of his fellow House members and is good enough for fifth place overall. Not bad considering Weber didn't ask for a single earmark in fiscal 2022, the first year in more than a decade that lawmakers had the opportunity.

With apologies to David Letterman, here is CQ Roll Call's fiscal 2023 earmark top 10 list:

Seven of the top 10 are members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has long rewarded smaller states with heaping helpings of federal largesse. It's that chamber's way of evening things out with House delegations, where most of the money goes to where most of the population is.

In addition to Shelby, the list includes Leahy, the retiring chairman; Murkowski, the ranking member on Interior-Environment appropriations; Blunt, the retiring senior Republican on Labor-HHS-Education; Graham, the top Republican on State-Foreign Operations; Moran, his party's lead on Commerce-Justice-Science; and Baldwin, the top Democrat on Agriculture appropriations.

The top 10 list excludes prolific earmarkers who made joint requests with their House and Senate colleagues, which may not be totally fair to lawmakers like Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. If we proportionately allocate earmarks Schatz requested jointly with other Hawaii delegation members, his total would vault to nearly $265 million. Of that figure, $94.3 million represents his solo requests.

But judging from Schatz's perch as chair of the most heavily earmarked bill, Transportation-HUD, he's likely the real power behind Hawaii's appropriations muscle. Over one-third of total earmarked dollars, or $5.6 billion, are in the Transportation-HUD measure, and one-third of total fiscal 2023 projects.

Here, in order, are total earmarked dollars and numbers of projects, by appropriations bill:

  • Transportation-HUD, 2,389 earmarks, $5.577 billion.
  • Labor-HHS-Education, 2,133 earmarks, $2.679 billion.
  • Military Construction-VA, 142 earmarks, $2.145 billion.
  • Interior-Environment, 855 earmarks, $1.634 billion.
  • Energy-Water, 339 earmarks, $1.289 billion.
  • Commerce-Justice-Science, 617 earmarks, $944 million.
  • Agriculture, 329 earmarks, $456 million.
  • Homeland Security, 168 earmarks, $319 million.
  • Financial Services, 246 earmarks, $230 million.
  • Defense, 16 earmarks, $54 million.

There are no earmarks in the Legislative Branch or State-Foreign Operations bills.

Headed for the exits

While House Republicans overwhelmingly voted to keep internal rules in place allowing them to earmark, slim margins in each chamber and the GOP's shaky hand on its unruly conference make crystal-balling next year's appropriations process difficult.

There's already talk that the two chambers may not be able to agree, and simply default to a continuing resolution that would deprive lawmakers of earmarks. If that's the case, then those members in each chamber who are retiring or lost in the midterms got out while the getting's good.

Earmarks attributed solely to senators and House members who won’t be in the next Congress totaled more than $2.4 billion, with $1.7 billion the work of five retiring senators: Shelby, Inhofe, Blunt, Leahy and Richard M. Burr, R-N.C.

Former Florida Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, who resigned at the end of September to become the CEO of the American Jewish Committee, sponsored nearly $17 million. And former Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., who resigned in August to mount an ultimately unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, got $21 million.

But Rep. Pat Ryan, D-N.Y., who won a special election to replace former Rep. Antonio Delgado, now lieutenant governor, lost his bid to secure the $21 million worth of earmarks that Delgado had sought before his departure.

House appropriators neglected to include Delgado's requests after he left for Albany, prompting Ryan to take up the mantle when he arrived in Washington. A Ryan spokesman didn't respond to a request for comment.

House members who lost bids for reelection, either in party primaries or last month, combined to sponsor $351.4 million worth of earmarks.

Missouri Republican Rep. Billy Long, who finished fourth in the primary for Blunt’s Senate seat with 5 percent of the vote, led the Republican pack, sponsoring $28.5 million in projects. Florida Democratic Rep. Al Lawson led the Democrats, with $25.2 million.

Lawson was defeated by Republican Rep. Neal Dunn by nearly 20 percentage points after Lawson’s district was split into pieces by redistricting.

Other top election losers sponsoring earmarks worth more than $20 million were, other than Crist, Democrats Cindy Axne of Iowa and Sean Patrick Maloney of New York and Republican Rodney Davis of Illinois.

Virginia Democratic Rep. A. Donald McEachin, who died last month, sponsored five earmarks alone worth more than $13 million, including a $3.6 million water main replacement in the city of Petersburg and a collection system at a manufacturing center in Greensville County for $3.4 million.

McEachin also was the originating sponsor of another $21.6 million of line items that were cosponsored by Virginia’s two senators, including $4 million for a fire and rescue station at Richmond International Airport.

Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.