WASHINGTON — In 2020, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., told C-SPAN that his constituents were not in favor of earmarks, so he wasn’t either.
Two years later, he earmarked a total of $37.9 million in two separate spending bills for projects in his district.
When House Republicans voted to place their own moratorium on earmarks in 2010, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., said the decision was a statement to Americans that “House Republicans are ready to lead the fight for lower spending, more transparency and responsibility in Washington.” In 2022, he secured $56.1 million in earmarks. In a statement, he said that with new, more stringent rules in place, the House was “reasserting its traditional and constitutional role in deciding how our tax dollars are spent.”
And while the House Freedom Caucus, the hard-right Republican group, called last summer for reinstating a ban on earmarks that took effect in 2011, one of its members, Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, secured $25.2 million for projects in his district. In an interview, he too said the changes put in place to make the practice more transparent had made him “more comfortable” with partaking in the age-old congressional ritual.
Even as Republicans, newly empowered after taking control of the House, call for deep government spending cuts and accuse Democrats of profligacy with taxpayer dollars, a growing number of them have joined Democrats in helping themselves to larger amounts of cash for their states and districts in the form of earmarks — now rebranded as “community project funding” — that allow lawmakers to direct federal money to pet projects.
A review by The New York Times of the nearly $16 billion in earmarks included in the $1.7 trillion spending law enacted in December — more than 7,200 projects in all — revealed that earmarks requested by members of both parties skyrocketed over the last year. And while Democrats secured a greater amount of spending on pet projects overall than Republicans did, the increase in GOP earmarks since last spring was larger.
Compared with spending legislation in March, the number of earmarks in the December bill rose by more than 2,200, costing $7 billion more, with Democrats outspending Republicans by $2.3 billion. Republican members secured 85% more in spending for pet projects in the latest funding package than in previous one, whereas Democrats’ increase was 70%.
The totals still pale in comparison with the heyday of earmarking — lawmakers claimed $32 billion worth in the 2010 fiscal year, before the prohibition went into effect — but the uptick reflects a bipartisan return in enthusiasm for the practice.
Republican lawmakers claimed eight of the 10 most expensive earmarks, with Rep. Brian Mast of Florida, securing the largest: $447 million for an ecosystem restoration project in South Florida.
At the same time, Republicans’ growing appetite for earmarks did not translate into broader support among them for the spending bill itself; in fact, the number of GOP lawmakers who secured funding for their requested projects but still opposed the appropriations package measure increased substantially. The disconnect reflects the intensity of the party’s anti-spending fervor and how many Republicans have sought to distance themselves from the must-pass funding bills that keep the government running, even as they profit politically from their enactment.
Earmarks make up less than 1% of the discretionary spending allocated annually by Congress, but they have sometimes been abused in the past — a number of scandals led to the ban in 2011 — and are often condemned, particularly by Republicans, as a symbol of Washington’s addiction to spending. Critics deride earmarks as “pork,” a term with a murky history that was used around the turn of the 20th century to compare lawmakers’ zeal for federal money to tales of enslaved people rushing toward barrels of salted pork.
“Earmarks are a fundamentally corrupt practice,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who did not request any earmarks. “I think they are the gateway drug to out-of-control government spending and the debt that is crushing future generations.”
But many lawmakers and scholars argue that earmarks fulfill a vital function of Congress, and help to grease the wheels of the legislative process by giving individuals members tangible reasons to negotiate spending deals.
“Building coalitions to get things done can often require horse trading and trades between members, and so when you have something like an earmark, it can serve that function,” said Molly E. Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research group. Despite past calls on the right for an earmark ban, there has been no move to impose one since Republicans took control of the House. And it remains unclear what, if anything, they may do to limit the practice.
During the prolonged floor fight last month over electing Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California, hard-right Republicans who resisted supporting him sought an array of measures to rein in spending, including by making it more difficult to secure earmarks, but it was not known whether that change was part of the raft of concessions McCarthy ultimately provided to win their votes. His office did not respond to requests for clarification about how earmarks would be handled.
For now, the practice appears to be gaining currency with at least some segment of the otherwise fiercely anti-spending GOP. Thirteen more Republicans requested earmarks in the latest spending bill in December than the previous one in March, the Times analysis found.
“I play with the rules of the House, and I want to make sure our districts are represented, so that’s why I did that,” Bacon, who has opposed earmarks in the past, said in an interview. “Even if you didn’t agree with the rules, you play by them because if you don’t, your district suffers for it.”
Opponents of earmarks argue they can lead to a lack of trust in politicians who may be seen as trying to buy votes by bringing home money.
“We call it the most corrupt, costly, inequitable practice in the history of Congress,” said Tom Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit government watchdog group, adding that most of the funding goes to members “either on the appropriations committees or in leadership.”
Several high-profile scandals prompted lawmakers to pause the practice more than a decade ago, including one that led to the resignation in 2005 of former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., who went to prison for accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes — including the use of a yacht named “Duke-Stir” — from military contractors for whom he secured federal contracts.
Democrats resurrected and overhauled the practice during the last Congress, imposing stricter rules such as one requiring that each request be made public online with a letter explaining why the project was needed and another mandating that each lawmaker attest that they had no personal or family connection to the proposal.
Sen. Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who brought home $251 million in the latest spending bill, said the new regulations had refined a process that directly benefits constituents.
“As long as you stay within the confines and have the structure around it, I think it’s a great thing,” Capito said. No member brought home more money than former Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who retired this year as one of the last big pork barrel legends. He claimed a total of $762 million covering 18 projects, retaining his title from last year as the highest getter. Second to Shelby was former Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who secured about $611 million.
The most expensive project from Democrats came from Sens. Mazie K. Hirono and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who brought home $111 million for an Army facility project. Schatz accrued the most funding among Democrats.
Like the earlier spending bill, lawmakers from populous states like California, Florida, Texas and New York brought home the most earmarks. Small states with members on the Appropriations committees, which have jurisdiction over government spending, also received a disproportionate share.
Alaska, Vermont, Hawaii and Maine had the highest funding per capita with the help of Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Schatz; and former Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who served as chair of the committee.
But an earmark did not necessarily buy support for the spending package; 107 Republicans and one Democrat who had secured projects ultimately opposed it, a greater number than in the previous bill, when 68 Republicans and six Democrats did the same.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who secured $15.8 million, said she opposed the legislation anyway because it included more funding for the Homeland Security Department.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a fiscal hawk, won approval of transportation-related projects he said had a “federal nexus,” but also voted no, arguing that the bill was stuffed with earmarks that were purely parochial.
Earmarks in the latest bill were devoted to a wide range of efforts, including $1 million for a Mississippi fish-eating bird control program, and $4 million for a Little Saigon Landmark project in Washington state that would create a Vietnamese cultural center, housing and a shopping center.
Other projects caused rancor among Republicans.
Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill.,, criticized a $3.6 million Department of Transportation project for a hiking trail named the “Michelle Obama Trail” in Georgia and a $3 million earmark for a New-York Historical Society and American LGBTQ+ Museum partnership project, calling them “woke nonsense.”