by Ashley Murray, Arkansas Advocate
May 10, 2023
WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans have requested more than $10 billion in earmarks to be included in next year’s appropriations bills, despite demanding massive spending cuts as a contingent for raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
All but a handful of House Republicans barely pushed through a bill that would temporarily raise the U.S. borrowing limit, but with stipulations for deep discretionary spending cuts and changes to federal programs, including wiping out new tax incentives meant to curb climate change and tightening access to food and medical assistance for low-income Americans.
But the lawmakers — many members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus that demanded concessions from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy such as cuts to federal spending before handing him the gavel — are still hoping to bring money back to their constituents for projects including road and bridge construction, coastal and ecosystem restoration, airport upgrades, first responder mental health services and replacement of local law enforcement vehicles.
Of the more than 5,000 direct spending requests from House members — now referred to as Community Project Funding — GOP members account for 1,864 requests, adding up to nearly $10.2 billion.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who demanded that his debt ceiling vote hinge on expediting new work rules for low-income Americans who receive food and health care benefits, submitted a single earmark request for $141.5 million for a helicopter training hangar at a Naval air base in Milton, Florida.
Colorado’s Rep. Lauren Boebert, a leader among the House Freedom Caucus members, submitted 10 requests totaling $34.3 million. The office of the lawmaker, who previously criticized earmarks as “corrupt,” did not respond for comment but referred States Newsroom to an op-ed she published explaining her reasoning for requesting road, water and sewer earmarks for her district.
House Appropriations Chair Kay Granger of Texas did lay out further ground rules for earmarks, including a “Federal Nexus Requirement,” meaning the committee will only approve projects tied to a federal authorization law, Boebert pointed out.
Projects such as memorials, museums, or any plans that commemorate an individual are not eligible for earmark dollars, and total granted requests should be capped at 0.5% of the GOP’s discretionary spending, according to Granger’s guidance.
“As a result of our historic changes, I am now able to fight for important infrastructure projects for the 3rd Congressional District of Colorado,” Boebert wrote.
New transparency rules for earmarks had already been established under the 117th Congress.
Pushing back against ‘bureaucrats’
Topping the list of GOP House members seeking funding is Rep. Randy Weber of Texas, who submitted more than half a billion dollars in requests. They include efforts to restore ports and waterways, study storm risk management and ecosystems along the Texas coast and dredge the Texas City channel.
Weber said in an emailed statement to States Newsroom that the requests are justified because his district is “the world’s energy capital.”
"(T)he investment in our infrastructure and flood mitigation is imperative to our national security. And energy security IS national security. I have seven ports deeply tied to shipping goods and energy products worldwide, and given the nature of my district, I'm advocating on behalf of the Gulf Coast of Texas and the entire nation,” Weber said.
“I was tired of faceless and nameless Washington bureaucrats making decisions we were elected to make. Our country cannot afford the woke and weaponized spending that has been foisted upon us. We must shrink Washington and grow America," he continued.
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House Majority Whip Tom Emmer — who advocated for federal spending cuts just hours before the House passed its debt ceiling bill on April 26 — submitted 12 requests totaling $47.6 million for highway and water treatment projects in Minnesota.
“Oh, the horror of a congressman requesting funds for projects that directly impact his constituents instead of leaving it to unelected Washington bureaucrats to wastefully spend billions of their taxpayer dollars,” Samantha Bullock, Emmer’s communications director, said in response to a request from States Newsroom for comment on earmark requests.
Jodey Arrington, House Budget Committee chair — who spoke at length about spending cuts during a six-hour hearing the night before the House GOP squeaked through its debt limit bill — submitted two requests at $14.7 million for a regional airport and interstate planning in his Texas district.
Arrington, Boebert, Emmer and Weber were among the 200 Republicans and six Democrats in 2021 who opposed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that approved funding for roadways, bridges, dams, coastal restoration and other transportation projects.
U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-MN, responds to a question at a town hall meeting on February 22, 2017 in Sartell, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Spokespersons for several other members, including Reps. Mike Collins of Georgia, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, Greg Murphy of North Carolina and Troy Nehls of Texas, said the earmarks will positively impact their communities and fill demands for critical infrastructure and military needs.
“There is nothing to ‘reconcile’ between member directed requests and comments about the need to reduce spending and votes to support limits and reductions to discretionary spending,” said Richard Vaughn, chief of staff for GOP Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee.
“For too long, Congress has ceded too much of its constitutional spending authority to the executive branch in directing taxpayer dollars. Congressman DesJarlais believes we need to reduce the overall levels of federal spending, and he also believes that Congress has the right and the authority to direct the spending within those accounts when those funding levels are established — whatever the totals may be,” Vaughn continued in an emailed response.
The offices of nearly 20 other GOP lawmakers did not respond to States Newsroom’s requests for comment.
McCarthy did not submit any earmarks requests.
Proposed federal spending cuts
House Republicans, by a slim margin, passed the Limit, Save, Grow Act to raise the nation’s $31.4 trillion borrowing cap by $1.5 trillion, or until March 31, 2024, whichever comes first, while at the same time proposing to cut spending to fiscal 2022 levels and cap discretionary expenditures at 1% annually until 2033.
The move would reduce the federal deficit by $3.2 trillion over the next 10 years, according to analyses by Moody’s Analytics and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
The bill also patches together savings by repealing energy tax credits that were passed in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act; preventing any student loan cancellation; expanding work requirements for certain recipients of Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; rescinding unspent COVID-19 relief funds; and enacting energy permitting changes.
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The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects the return to FY2022 and spending caps, plus the cuts to other federal programs listed above, would reduce the federal deficit by $4.8 trillion over the next decade.
However, the bill as written would add to the deficit over that time period — by about $120 billion — by slashing money approved last year by the Democratic majority meant for the Internal Revenue Service to hire more staff and improve operations for collecting tax revenue.
McCarthy faced pressure from the far-right members of the GOP conference to attach spending cuts to any movement on the debt ceiling.
With the House GOP holding a slim margin, with wiggle room for only four votes, 20 of the party’s far-right contingent — Boebert and Gaetz among them — were able to block McCarthy’s path to becoming speaker for several days until he agreed to their concessions. The handshake deal included tying spending cuts to raising the debt ceiling, seating far-right members on key committees, and changing some House rules, including lowering the threshold of members needed to oust the speaker.
The debt ceiling is the legal amount of money the U.S. can use to pay the nation’s creditors. If Congress fails to raise the limit, the U.S. will default on its bills. Most economists say there are only weeks left before the country reaches that tipping point.
Four Republican members voted against the GOP debt ceiling bill, including Andy Biggs of Arizona, Ken Buck of Colorado, Tim Burchett of Tennessee and Gaetz, who alleged the legislation would actually increase the deficit over the next 10 years.
House Freedom Caucus
The chair of the House Freedom Caucus, Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, and the Freedom Caucus policy chair, Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, both hard-line advocates for cutting spending, have not submitted any earmark requests.
One of the remaining original co-founders of the caucus in 2015, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, also has not submitted earmark requests.
Perry and Roy were leaders among the architects of the handshake deal with McCarthy in January.
In March, Perry held a press conference where he and more than a dozen conservative members of the caucus laid out their spending demands, such as a cap on non-defense discretionary spending at fiscal 2022 levels for the next decade, in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
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“This current debt crisis has been created solely by reckless Democrat policies and out of control spending,” Perry said during the press conference.
A July 2022 Freedom Caucus document outlining “aggressive reforms” the group wanted by the new year contained on its wishlist a return to an outright ban on earmarks.
“Earmarks facilitate federal overreach by spending taxpayer-dollars on personal pet projects of lawmakers and lobbyists. Earmarks also extend Congress’s power of spending beyond items genuinely connected to the nation’s welfare,” according to the document. “In practice, they are often used to buy votes and coerce support for bills that might otherwise not pass muster. Essentially, earmarks amount to taxpayer-financed bribery.”
The caucus does not publicize its membership, and only about a dozen lawmakers list an affiliation on their member websites. Drawing from House Freedom Fund records and multiple news media accounts, the Pew Research Center identified 49 lawmakers either belonging to the House Freedom Caucus, or closely aligned with it. The subscription-based clearinghouse LegiStorm lists 51 lawmakers as part of the HFC.
Of the list of lawmakers identified by Pew, 44.8% submitted earmark requests.
States Newsroom’s attempts to contact Perry’s office and Tim Reitz, who is listed as the caucus’ executive director, went unanswered. Let us know what you think...
Matthew Green, a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said it's important to remember that the House Freedom Caucus isn’t a monolith.
Green, who specifically studies the group, said there’s no rule in the caucus that members can’t request money from the federal government, and the “other way to think about it is that you know, sometimes parochialism trumps ideology.”
“You can blame Freedom Caucus members for being hypocritical, but this is what lawmakers have done for forever, which is they'll say one thing on principle, but then when it comes down to their actual districts, they want to help their district, they want to get reelected,” Green said.
Arrington and Emmer are not part of the Freedom Caucus, and are not considered aligned with the group, according to the Pew analysis.
Earmarks historically have been requested by both Democrats and Republicans. After intense public criticism for “pork-barrel spending,” they were banned by the House GOP for roughly a decade before they were revived by Democrats during the 117th Congress under a new name and new requirements and restrictions.
Upon the return of earmarks in 2021, new rules established by the Democratic majority included a limit of 10 project requests per member, a requirement for members to post all requests online in a searchable format, a ban on requests relating to for-profit entities, and a certification that neither the member nor the member’s spouse or immediate family has a financial stake in the project.
Rules now established under the current GOP-led House include a 15-project request limit for members, capping total earmarks at a half percent of discretionary spending, only allowing earmarks tied to a federal authorization law, guidelines for “careful vetting” of projects and stewardship of funds.
The GOP rules keep requirements for transparency — that members must submit them in writing and post requests publicly — and keep in place financial conflict safeguards and a ban on any eligibility for for-profit entities.
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