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Big shoes filled as Senate appropriators spread earmarks wealth

Despite key retirements, senior spending panel members don't miss a beat steering funds to their home states

From left, Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, pose for a picture to mark National Seersucker Day in the Capitol on June 8.
From left, Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, pose for a picture to mark National Seersucker Day in the Capitol on June 8. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected Aug. 8 | The retirement of several titans of congressional appropriating hasn’t slowed down the Senate’s appetite for “congressionally directed spending” — better known as earmarks.  

Under new management this year, the Senate Appropriations Committee has allocated over $7.74 billion worth of earmarks among over 3,700 separate line items tucked into their fiscal 2024 bills, a CQ Roll Call analysis found.  

That’s just a hair under the $7.78 billion provided in the initial Senate versions last year — which is striking because of that total, about $1.8 billion was for projects requested by a handful of senators who’ve since retired. 

They were: Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., and Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., respectively the former ranking member and chairman of Senate Appropriations; James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., the former top Republican on the Armed Services Committee; Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the ex-ranking member on Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations; and Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., who held the same role on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.  

The new leaders of the Appropriations Committee, Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, have distributed earmarked funds a little more evenly among their colleagues. No single senator broke the half-billion-dollar mark, as Shelby and Inhofe each did last year.  

Dethroning Shelby as the largest earmarker in the Senate is Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska — joining a long tradition of legendary Alaskan appropriators like the panel’s former chairman, Republican Ted Stevens. Murkowski, the top Republican on the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, secured $465 million for her remote home state, a slight decrease from last year’s Senate bills but still enough to put her at No. 1.  

Collins’ promotion to the spot vacated by Shelby coincides with her earmarks total propelling her up to No. 3 in the chamber with $374.4 million, behind only Murkowski and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a senior appropriator who has $395.2 million in the Senate bills. Collins and Graham last year were 11th and 6th, respectively.  

Murray’s total didn’t change drastically from last year’s Senate versions, though her $203.8 million is still good for No. 12 this year.  

Collins and Graham dramatically increased their hauls in the fiscal 2024 versions over a year earlier. So did other top appropriators, such as John Boozman of Arkansas, the senior Republican on the Military Construction-VA Subcommittee, who’s now No. 4 at $290.7 million; Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., the new ranking member on Transportation-HUD, who vaulted to No. 6, with $273.4 million; and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., the new Labor-HHS-Education ranking member, who’s 8th with $233.8 million.  

Collins’ ascension had ancillary benefits for home-state colleague Angus King, I-Maine, a newcomer to the top 20 list at $227.3 million. And despite Shelby’s departure, Alabama’s still in good hands as his onetime aide and successor — Homeland Security Appropriations ranking member Katie Britt, R-Ala. — made her debut at No. 9 with $232.1 million.  

Other newcomers to the top 20 include Roger Wicker, R-Miss.; Deb Fischer, R-Neb., a first-time earmarker and new member of the Appropriations Committee; and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 ranking Democrat in the Senate and senior appropriator.  

The highest-ranking senator, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., comes in 16th on the list at $164.4 million. That’s just behind his sometime-tormentor Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., the centrist who often votes with Republicans.  

Vulnerables

Manchin, who hasn’t said if he’ll run for reelection in 2024, would have perhaps the toughest race of any incumbent. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales just moved Manchin’s seat into the Tilt Republican column.  

Three other incumbents have their races ranked Toss-ups. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., who receives Democratic committee assignments from her former party, got a roughly similar amount as a year earlier at $50.7 million, putting her near the bottom of the list.  

At $110.5 million, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has enough to get into the top 25. The final Toss-up senator, Jon Tester, D-Mont., is one of just two Senate Democrats who don’t request earmarks. The other is New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan.  

A couple Democrats are in slightly safer territory but still considered vulnerable in states that typically have close statewide races. Nevada’s Jacky Rosen and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey are in seats rated Tilt Democratic; they are 38th and 23nd on the earmarks list, respectively.  

Another seat held by a swing-state Democrat, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, is rated Lean Democratic. Baldwin, who chairs the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, is 14th with $178.1 million. 

Of the top 20 Senate earmarkers, 15 are members of the Appropriations Committee. The only exceptions are King, Wicker, Schumer, Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Bill Cassidy, R-La.  

While the total amount of earmarked funds has dropped slightly in this year’s iteration of Senate appropriations bills, the number of individual projects has gone up — as has the number of earmarkers, which has helped spread out the dollar amounts a little more evenly. Freshman John Fetterman, D-Pa., who helped pad Democrats’ majority to 51, is one of the additions.  

Far fewer Republicans request projects, but their total ranks grew by one between the 117th and 118th Congresses, despite retirements. In addition to Britt and Fischer, new GOP earmarkers are Tommy Tuberville of Alabama; John Kennedy of Louisiana; and Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, a freshman and former House member who didn’t request projects during his time in that chamber.  

[Earmarks increase in popularity, slightly, among GOP senators]

Tuberville has been under fire of late, earning criticism from senators on both sides of the aisle for his blockade of hundreds of military nominations and promotions. But his colleagues still saw fit to include $72 million worth of his requests.  

Joint requests  

CQ Roll Call’s analysis allocates joint and bipartisan earmarks proportionally among their sponsors. For instance, Maine’s senators teamed up on $431.1 million, adding $215.6 million each to their totals on top of projects they secured individually.

Likewise, the West Virginians secured $288.4 million in joint earmarks, and Mississippi’s delegation worked together on $166.3 million. Hirono and Transportation-HUD Appropriations Chair Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, helped each other get into the top tier by virtue of $268.6 million in joint projects. Even Schumer had significant backup, from Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., for $214.6 million. 

Top earmarkers Murkowski and Graham didn’t get any help because Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Tim Scott, R-S.C., don’t ask for earmarks. Neither did Boozman or No. 7 on our list, Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kan., with $242.7 million in solo earmarks. 

Roughly three-fourths of senators requesting earmarks, accounting for about the same percentage of total requests, are Democrats or independents who caucus with them — or in Sinema’s case, who at least vote with them most of the time.  

Under Murray’s leadership, Democrats have set aside just 58 percent of total earmarked funds for their side of the aisle to 42 percent for Republicans, counting each party’s share of bipartisan projects.  

That’s tilted more heavily to Murray’s party than when Leahy was in charge last year; the split was 54-46 last year in the initial Senate bills. But it’s more even than the roughly 62-38 allocation House Republicans in control of that chamber settled on for the nearly $7.4 billion in earmarks they’ve included — especially considering House Republicans are sponsoring just 35 percent of the projects.  

[Republicans hoover up earmarks in House spending bills]

In the House’s fiscal 2024 bills, 19 of the top 20 earmarkers are men. By contrast, half of the Senate’s top 20 are women.

HHS, Pentagon projects pick up slack

The mix of earmarks in the Senate bills is also substantially different.

Unlike their House GOP counterparts, Senate appropriators allow project funding in the Labor-HHS-Education and Financial Services bills. The Labor-HHS-Education measure was particularly popular among senators, with nearly 30 percent of all earmarks for a total of more than $1.4 billion, mostly within HHS accounts. That’s second only to the Transportation-HUD bill at $2.1 billion.   

Compared with the House, the Labor-HHS-Education and Military Construction-VA bills pick up much of the slack in the Senate versions left by a much smaller earmark allocation to Transportation-HUD, which got nearly $4 billion in the House version. Senate appropriators included over $1 billion more for Pentagon military construction earmarks than their House colleagues.  

If history is any guide, any final appropriations deal for fiscal 2024 is likely to simply accept each chamber’s projects, with only duplicate earmarks removed. In fiscal 2023, each chamber’s appropriators included about $8 billion initially, for a total of $16 billion; the total in the final omnibus package was $15.3 billion.  

So far with about $15 billion sought by both chambers’ earmarkers combined, it seems likely the final amount will come in a little shy of the fiscal 2023 enacted total. But a deal still seems a long way off as a powerful band of House GOP conservatives seek to cut overall spending in the bills by more than $100 billion.  

It’s difficult to imagine earmarks being spared in a situation like that, despite some of the biggest spending critics requesting over $100 million of their own projects. And the alternative to an appropriations deal may be a full-year stopgap measure without any new earmarks.

This report has been corrected to account for certain Energy-Water spending bill projects omitted in the initial calculation. Rankings in some cases have been adjusted accordingly.

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