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House, Senate majorities putting their stamps on earmarks

Despite push for cuts, earmarks in four House bills grew 20 percent

The chairman of the subcommittee that wrote it, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., is sponsoring $236.8 million worth of earmarks in the Energy-Water bill.
The chairman of the subcommittee that wrote it, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., is sponsoring $236.8 million worth of earmarks in the Energy-Water bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

​The fiscal 2024 appropriations process has just begun, but some patterns in the distribution of earmarks by the majorities in their respective chambers are starting to emerge.

Across four bills containing earmarks that the House Appropriations Committee has approved, the new GOP majority is proposing to increase earmarked dollars above levels included in initial fiscal 2023 House bills last year. 

Despite a push to hold overall spending below the current fiscal year, funding devoted to earmarks in House bills has grown by more than 20 percent — from less than $1.6 billion to over $1.9 billion — in the Agriculture, Energy-Water, Homeland Security and Military Construction-VA bills.

While seeking overall cuts, House Republicans are proposing increases for defense-related programs and veterans funding in line with the debt limit law and would boost border security as well. As a result, new spending across the four bills is 2.5 percent higher than what House Democrats proposed last year for the fiscal 2023 versions — so the growth of earmarks is significantly outpacing overall increases.

The result isn’t entirely unexpected: House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, has axed home-state projects in the Defense, Financial Services and Labor-HHS-Education measures, focusing attention on other bills’ resources. 

Those three bills, mainly Labor-HHS-Education, in fiscal 2023 contained almost one-fifth of the chamber’s $8.2 billion in earmarks. Thus, the total for fiscal 2024 could drop off once remaining bills are unveiled.

Senate Appropriations Democrats in control in that chamber have reported two bills thus far — Agriculture and Military Construction-VA — with a lot more money devoted to earmarks than their House counterparts in those two bills: $1.6 billion versus $780 million. 

While spending in those two bills would grow by close to 1 percent combined from what the Senate panel released initially last year, the new Senate Appropriations leadership this year would cut earmarked funds by 23 percent. 

By contrast, the House versions of the Agriculture and Military Construction-VA bills would see less than 2 percent combined growth from the prior year’s Democrat-drafted versions, but they include 36 percent more earmark dollars.

Senate Democrats have only scrapped Defense bill earmarks, however, giving them plenty of opportunities to grow the pot in other bills like Labor-HHS-Education, which in last year’s Senate version contained over $1.3 billion worth of projects.

Agriculture earmarks explosion

Earmarked funds in the House’s Military Construction-VA and Homeland Security bills, even with larger overall allocations, would decline from the previous year’s versions. 

The growth is driven by Agriculture earmarks — up a whopping 154 percent despite a 7 percent overall spending reduction from the House’s fiscal 2023 bill — and Energy-Water earmarks, up 20 percent.

Both parties are getting more earmarked funds in this year’s Agriculture bill as part of the nearly $300 million increase over last year’s, despite Republicans’ proposed $1.9 billion cut below levels House Democrats included for fiscal 2023. But growth really took off on the GOP side, nearly quadrupling dollars set aside for their members in last year’s House bill.

Leading the charge is Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris, R-Md., who’s changed his tune under GOP leadership after signing a 2021 “no earmarks” pledge. Harris tops the list in his bill with $11 million in district projects out of a combined $485 million.

The $160 million proposed increase in House Energy-Water earmarks, to $944.5 million, comes as total nondefense funding in that measure would drop by over a half-billion dollars below last year’s House bill.

The difference is amplified by a policy shift Republicans instituted this year: barring earmarks in the Energy Department budget, which last year were funded at $117 million in the House Democrats’ fiscal 2023 bill. Filling the void and then some are Army Corps of Engineers earmarks, up $289 million over last year’s House version, or 45 percent. 

The total corps budget would rise nearly 8 percent over the fiscal 2023 proposal — and nearly 11 percent above the final enacted level — to $9.6 billion, demonstrating a continued GOP affinity for infrastructure projects even in a tight spending environment.

Leading the pack in Energy-Water earmarks is that subcommittee’s first year “cardinal,” Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who came away with a quarter of the measure’s total: $236.8 million. 

The money would be for a massive ongoing project to replace the aging Chickamauga Lock on the Tennessee River, which the corps calls “one of the most important current construction projects” in the agency’s portfolio. The White House’s fiscal 2024 budget didn’t request any new funds for the project.

Uneven split

Last year under Democratic control, Republicans secured two-thirds of total earmark dollars in the House’s fiscal 2023 Agriculture, Energy-Water, Homeland Security and Military Construction-VA bills. This year, GOP lawmakers are getting nearly 83 percent.

Across the spending bills containing earmarks this year, including those that haven’t been released yet, Republicans say the distribution of project funds will be 63-37 in their favor, or the same majority-minority split Democrats used in the last Congress. 

But Democrats argue that dollar distribution was also tied to the number of requests by members of each party, as House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said at the first full committee markup and previously in private correspondence with Granger.

Two years ago in the fiscal 2022 cycle, two-thirds of requesters were Democrats, and the dollar split was 63-37 in favor of Democrats, according to a note DeLauro sent to Granger seen by CQ Roll Call. Last year during the fiscal 2023 process, the member participation rate skewed 65-35 toward Democrats, but DeLauro says her party held onto the 63-37 ratio. 

This year, earmarking has grown in popularity among Republicans, with 154 of them requesting projects. However, with all Democrats except California Rep. Katie Porter, a Senate candidate, requesting projects, that side has made 58 percent of earmark requests.  

A GOP committee aide said last month DeLauro had set the precedent for the 63-37 majority-minority split, and that both parties submitted requests for comparable total dollars in fiscal 2024.

“Republican members expect to be treated fairly when the shoe is on the other foot,” the aide said.

Fewer Senate earmarks, more for Democrats

On the Senate panel, while leadership has changed hands this year, Democrats remain in control. It’s not clear what ultimate distribution new Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., and new ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, will settle on. 

In his initial versions of the fiscal 2023 bills, former chairman and now-retired Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., split earmarked dollars up roughly 54 percent for Democrats and independents who caucus with them to 46 percent for Republicans, with joint requests credited proportionally to each party. That same distribution held for the Senate’s Agriculture and Military Construction-VA bills, on average.

This year, Murray, also chair of the Military Construction-VA subcommittee, has distributed earmarked funds roughly 62-38 in favor of Democrats so far.

Last year, 48 Senate Democratic caucus members requested projects, versus 16 Republicans; this year, those numbers are 49 and 17, respectively.

Senate Agriculture bill earmarks are up about 7 percent over last year’s Senate version, to $290 million, despite total funding that’s 4 percent lower than what Democrats proposed last year. That measure has 55 percent going to Democrats and independent caucus members, and 45 percent to the GOP, compared to a 64-36 split last year.

The top individual recipients are Republicans, led by Collins with nearly $39 million including joint requests with Angus King, I-Maine; the top Democratic earmarker in the Agriculture bill is new subcommittee Chair Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., followed by Murray.

In the Senate Military Construction-VA measure, this year’s split is 63-37 in favor of Democrats with less money to go around for earmarks compared to last year’s Senate version, which had a 53-47 split. 

Murray allocated $2.4 billion more to military construction overall, a nearly 15 percent increase over the fiscal 2023 Senate bill. But she would cut earmarks below last year’s Senate version by $515 million, or 28 percent, to a little over $1.3 billion.

Hawaii Democrats Brian Schatz and Mazie K. Hirono are the big winners with $341 million combined worth of milcon earmarks. GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are the next-highest recipients, with over $100 million each for their states. Schatz, Murkowksi and Graham are all senior appropriators.  

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