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Lawmakers chafe at nonprofit earmark ban, tight request deadline

New restrictions hit both sides of the aisle, including Republicans in tough races

Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., says new rule on HUD projects "kind of pisses me off."
Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., says new rule on HUD projects "kind of pisses me off." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House members are scrambling to sort through earmark requests that are due Friday, just one week after House Appropriations Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., rolled out new guidelines for “community project funding” that cut off a lucrative avenue for delivering social services benefits back home.

Some offices had started soliciting and reviewing project requests earlier this year, as the fiscal 2024 process dragged on. But others took a more cautious approach and waited to see if House Republicans would change the rules again, as they did last year.  

And they did — Cole threw a curveball last week by announcing that nonprofits would be barred from earmarks in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Economic Development Initiative grant program. The final fiscal 2024 appropriations package included around $800 million worth of earmarks initially sought by House lawmakers for nonprofits under this account, part of HUD’s Community Development Fund.

Some members of both parties are frustrated by the change, which would prohibit grants for organizations ranging from Young Men’s Christian Association facilities to Boys & Girls Clubs to shelters for victims of domestic violence.

“Those charities and those nonprofits actually put the power to the ground for us,” Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., a member of the Appropriations Committee, said. “So I’m not happy about this change at all.” 

The new rules, combined with the tight deadline, had offices in both parties working over the weekend to sort through project requests and solicit new ideas from groups in their districts.

‘Political’ earmarks

The HUD EDI account was the largest single source of earmarks in fiscal 2024, at $3.3 billion, with $2.2 billion of those originating in the House. Former Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, blocked earmarks in last year’s Labor-HHS-Education bill, which previously was a major landing spot for social services-related earmarks. 

But some House Republicans were upset with projects House Democrats had sought in the fiscal 2024 Transportation-HUD bill that supported the LGBTQ community, and Republicans took the uncommon step of stripping three Democratic earmarks from the bill during their markup last summer.

Cole has said he wanted to avoid any “political” earmarks, and said that the change would “ensure projects are consistent with the community development goals of the federal program.” 

[Cole eyes axing HUD earmarks for nonprofit organizations]

The change is part of Republicans’ attempt to pass appropriations bills on the floor, according to new Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Steve Womack, who took over Cole’s old slot.

“What Tom is trying to do, is he’s trying to leverage the ability for us to get bills passed,” Womack, R-Ark., said. “If we’re going to be thin on our numbers, let’s save as much of it as we can.” 

However, Womack said he did not think the earmark change is a “panacea for passage” due to the wide range of interconference disputes on issues ranging from FBI funding to abortion, and the party’s slim majority.

“It’s one small step to kind of galvanize support that might otherwise be lost,” Womack said. 

Democrats immediately blasted the change and said they would restore earmarks for nonprofits in the account if they take back the majority. 

“They really are hurting the American people,” House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said. “Imagine not being able to deal with a senior center, not being able to deal with a housing project when this issue all around the country is housing and homelessness? Who are they?” 

Bipartisan popularity

Members of both parties took advantage of the account for this fiscal year. The largest single House-originated EDI project was $9 million secured by Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif, for a homeless shelter in Bakersfield. Valadao is in a tough reelection race, which Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Tilt Republican.

Other House Republicans who secured earmarks under the account include some of the conference’s furthest-right members. Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, secured $3 million for a YMCA redevelopment project in his district. And Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., secured five projects totaling $4.5 million, including $2 million for the Knoxville Habitat for Humanity. 

Garcia is one of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents this November; Inside Elections rates his race a Toss-up.

In the final fiscal 2024 spending package, Garcia secured $2.2 million for Santa Clarita’s Child & Family Center, which places at-risk children in homes and provides resources that would otherwise not be available. That money went toward a building rehabilitation project.

“Little things, like just getting them the air conditioning system that would have otherwise put them out of business, now they are still alive and helping families, it’s because of the earmark,” Garcia said. 

Garcia said while some undeserving nonprofits have received funding in the past, he believes lawmakers should vet individual projects instead of implementing a blanket ban. 

“It’s our job to go make sure we are putting the money to the right nonprofits, so it kind of pisses me off that we did this,” he said. 

Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, received $5.75 million for nonprofits in the EDI fund.

Simpson secured $3.1 million for The Peregrine Fund for workforce housing for endangered species recovery and $2.65 million for the National Law Enforcement Foundation to build a child care center in Idaho’s Treasure Valley. 

“It’s unfortunate that there are a lot of good nonprofits doing some great work out there, but I understood why they did it,” Simpson said. “So that’s what we’ll do.” 

‘Everybody’s scrambling’

The one-week deadline is also drawing criticism and forcing members of both parties to scramble to get their requests in to the Appropriations Committee. Lawmakers have to cull through large lists of submissions from their constituents and narrow the list of asks down to 15, and meet eligibility criteria such as ensuring a “federal nexus” — a purpose authorized in prior laws.

By comparison, senators had at least three weeks from the rollout of their guidance on April 17 — which did not include any major changes from the previous year — with deadlines between May 8 and 13. 

However, with lawmakers not finishing fiscal 2024 spending bills until late March, appropriators are getting a late start on this year’s budget cycle. If House Republicans want to pass appropriations bills this summer, they need to start marking up bills next month.

Representatives of local governments and nonprofits have been flying into Washington over the past month to let offices know their priorities for fiscal 2025 earmarks, one Democratic staffer said. 

However, without official guidance, the process slowed as organizations waited to see what would be allowed. The staffer said as of last week, the office had only received six requests, a number that had ballooned to 45 by Monday. 

The Friday deadline has forced the office to vet those while receiving some more last-minute incoming requests. The rushed timeline could increase the chances of a controversial project slipping through the cracks, the aide said. 

Other members were less worried about the deadline. Garcia said his office had been working on the fiscal 2025 process since November and is now sorting through 160 requests.

Rep. David Trone, D-Md., who’s running for Senate, said he opened his application portal in late January and started grading projects on March 4. His office is finalizing its picks this week.

Still, DeLauro said Tuesday that she had been inundated with members worried about the tight timeline to submit requests.

“Everybody’s scrambling,” DeLauro said. “I’m going to see if we can get an extension.”

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