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Earmarks increase in popularity, slightly, among GOP senators

Republicans gradually changing their tune on home-state projects two years after Democrats reinstated the practice

Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., arrives in the Capitol for a vote on  April 18.
Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., arrives in the Capitol for a vote on April 18. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

New Senate Republican earmark requesters are angling to fill the shoes left by the retirements of four longtime senators heavily involved in bringing federal dollars back home, including the chamber’s top two individual earmarkers during the last appropriations cycle.

Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., a freshman, as well as Alabama’s now-senior senator, Republican Tommy Tuberville, are seeking earmarks this year.

That’s a change for Tuberville, who didn’t request home-state projects the past two years, though perhaps not surprising for Britt, a onetime top aide to ex-Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., the former top Appropriations Republican and legendary earmarker whose seat she won last year.

Other Republicans who’ve begun to seek earmarks after sitting out the past two years since the practice was reinstituted are two Senate appropriators: Energy-Water Subcommittee ranking member John Kennedy of Louisiana, and Nebraska’s Deb Fischer, a newcomer to the spending panel this year.

Rounding out the group of new Republican earmarkers is Oklahoma’s Markwayne Mullin, a freshman who won the seat vacated by GOP Sen. James M. Inhofe — who was second only to Shelby last year in terms of total earmarked dollars brought home in the fiscal 2023 omnibus package.

The total number of Senate Republican earmark requesters rose from 16 to 17, despite the four retirements — an increase in line with House Republicans’ growing affinity for earmarks, though to a much smaller extent.

Overall, 66 senators requested earmarks, including every Democrat except New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan and Montana’s Jon Tester, who sat out the process the past two cycles as well.

Senators requested a total of $53.3 billion in projects, though that figure is heavily inflated, as it includes duplicate requests that two senators in the same state are seeking or individual projects senators requested in multiple bills.

Unlike their House counterparts, who are capped at 15 requests per office, senators can submit however many they want. Including their own duplicate requests, House members submitted lists of projects totaling $19.4 billion.

However, the odds of disappointment are much greater for senators: appropriations leaders in both chambers have agreed to cap total earmarked dollars at 1 percent of overall discretionary spending. That’s somewhere between $15 billion and $17 billion depending on the outcome of negotiations over the fiscal 2024 topline, with roughly half set aside for requests originating in each chamber.

Big shoes

Tuberville and Britt are teaming up to fill Shelby’s big shoes: He procured about $1.2 billion in the past Congress, making him the top earmarker on Capitol Hill.

Britt requested $410.2 million, including $61.7 million in the Military Construction-VA bill for projects at Fort Novosel in southeast Alabama, the Army’s aviation headquarters. Tuberville requested $253.7 million, including $23.1 million to upgrade drinking water infrastructure in the city of Arab in the Interior-Environment bill.

Tuberville spokesman Steven Stafford said in a statement that his boss arrived on Capitol Hill in 2021 just as earmarks returned and didn’t participate the past two years “in order to take time to observe and study the process and ensure abuses of the past did not continue.”

Upon further review, Tuberville decided in February to take part “on a targeted and tailored basis,” Stafford said.

Britt, the top Republican on Homeland Security appropriations, defended the earmarking process in a statement. “I firmly believe that our hard-earned tax dollars should be coming home to our communities, rather than being spent by bureaucrats in the Biden administration to fund projects in New York and California,” she said.

Mullin, who did not request earmarks when he was in the House, will now try to replicate the success of Inhofe, who brought home $498 million for Oklahoma in the fiscal 2023 omnibus.

Mullin requested $654.4 million, including $427.5 million for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, mainly for infrastructure projects. For example, Mullin asked for $76.6 million for a highway interchange project in Oklahoma City.

Like Britt, Mullin pointed out that larger states were more likely to nab federal funds if lawmakers didn’t exercise their Article 1 prerogatives.

“Congress has a constitutional obligation to raise and disburse money, and there is no reason we should let California and New York receive the bulk of congressionally directed spending,” Mullin said in a statement. “Oklahomans are infinitely more attuned to the needs of our state than Washington bureaucrats.”

Kennedy requested $174.9 million, with big-ticket items including $70 million in the Military Construction-VA bill for a dormitory at Barksdale Air Force Base and $36.5 million for an Army Corps of Engineers project at the Boggs Lock and Dam in his Energy-Water measure. Kennedy’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Fischer, a first-year appropriator, is the Legislative Branch panel’s ranking member. She requested $192.4 million, including $50 million in the Agriculture measure to construct a center for Resilient and Regenerative Precision Agriculture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Fischer said now that’s she’s on the committee, she’s able to look at programs and make informed decisions about what should get funding. For Nebraska, she highlighted her requests for water projects in small communities.

“It’s really hard for a community of 600 or 1,200 people to be able to make the improvements needed,” she said. “So this is a really good area where we can focus that tax dollar to go back to these communities and help them.”

While Britt and Mullin decided to request earmarks, other freshmen Senate Republicans Eric Schmitt of Missouri, J.D. Vance of Ohio, Ted Budd of North Carolina and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska joined the majority of their conference and did not submit requests.

Health, education projects

Senators primarily eyed the Transportation-HUD bill, requesting a total of $16 billion in 5,347 requests, and the Interior-Environment bill, requesting $11.3 billion in 3,101 requests. However, those figures are again exaggerated because of duplicates.

The most popular bill by volume of requests is Labor-HHS-Education, in which senators requested 6,053 projects for a total of $8.9 billion. The Financial Services bill received 536 requests for a total of $678.3 million — the least requested bill in terms of funding sought.

However, House Republicans barred earmarks in the Labor-HHS-Education and Financial Services bills in that chamber, calling into question whether those projects on the Senate side may get axed during eventual bicameral negotiations.

Republicans in the House opted against allowing earmarks in those bills after conservative activists targeted several projects funded in fiscal 2023 for being “woke,” including money set aside for recipients focused on LGBTQ and transgender services. House Republicans also narrowed their criteria for projects to those with a “federal nexus” — purposes authorized in prior laws.

Despite their colleagues’ stance across the Capitol, 14 of the 17 Senate Republicans requesting earmarks are seeking projects in Labor-HHS-Education accounts, accounting for about $1.2 billion of that bill’s requests.

Top requesters in that bill among the GOP are Mississippi’s Cindy Hyde-Smith at $190.4 million, followed by the subcommittee ranking member, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, at $175.5 million and full committee ranking member Susan Collins of Maine, with $142.1 million.

[Mississippi rebuilds health earmark empire in post-Cochran era]

Republicans capped themselves at $15 million per individual Labor-HHS-Education request, but Democrats don’t appear to have similarly limited their requests.

Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Christopher S. Murphy teamed up to seek $194.2 million for “redesigning curriculum in Danbury public schools,” for instance. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., wants $85 million for CodyCares for Kids Inc., which provides counseling services for teens and young adults in Brooklyn.

Duplicates

The impact of duplicate requests quickly becomes apparent when looking at the most expensive project across all the bills. New York Democrats Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand each requested $390 million for a Cayuga County, N.Y., sewage and water treatment project in the Interior-Environment bill.

That same bill includes a separate request from each of the senators for $133 million for a drinking water filtration plant in Westchester County and $124 million for a sewer system replacement in Suffolk County.

Combined, Schumer and Gillibrand appear to be seeking over $4 billion each, though that figure is inflated by duplicates.

The data also show senators possibly hedging their bets that a project that might not make it into one spending bill will be included in another.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., put a $1.8 million request for a youth center in Big Lake, Minn., in both the Labor-HHS-Education bill and in the Transportation-HUD bill. Sen. Tina Smith also requested that same $1.8 million in the Transportation-HUD bill.

Duplicate requests can also be bipartisan: Combined, Capito and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III submitted 1,251 requests totaling $3.3 billion.

But dozens of them are either identical or significantly similar, ranging from the $23,000 each requests for a new roof on the Bethany Community Center to the $25 million for water treatment and sewer systems that Capito sought for Clay County, W.Va., while Manchin said it would be for the unincorporated municipality of Fola in that county.

Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.