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Vulnerable Democrats bet earmarks’ stigma has worn off

Jennifer Shutt
CQ-Roll Call

Washington — Dozens of at-risk House Democrats are betting that securing money for their constituents through earmarks will be somewhere between a net positive for their reelection campaigns and a neutral factor that won’t turn off undecided voters.

That’s something of a change from the Frontline program Democrats of the last Congress, who were concerned that Republicans would use the rebranded “community project funding” as a political weapon against them.

But House Democrats didn’t ultimately go through with restoring earmarks in the 116th Congress, and several of those endangered members lost their seats in 2020 anyway amid unexpected support for GOP candidates that left Democrats barely in control of the chamber.

U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, speaks at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Dallas.

Now, Democrats from swing districts are nearly all in on earmarks, with 31 of the 32 Democrats on the Frontline list requesting local funds from the Appropriations Committee.

Second-term Texas Rep. Colin Allred, who defeated longtime GOP Rep. Pete Sessions in 2018 and won reelection last year by a 6-point margin with nearly 52% of the vote, doesn’t expect earmarks will be used against him in the midterms.

“I understand that almost everything in D.C. is political, but the process I went through and also, I think, the process of trying to make important investments in your community should be apolitical,” Allred said.

The former Tennessee Titans linebacker, who went on to work as a civil rights attorney in President Barack Obama’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, formed a committee to sort through all of the projects in his suburban Dallas district.

The 11-member bipartisan group was designed to “take the politics out of it,” Allred said, by picking projects that would address local needs, demonstrate job creation, or mitigate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Allred’s 10 appropriations requests ended up among the most expensive in the House at slightly more than $241 million. Much of that would go toward two big Dallas Fort Worth International Airport projects that Allred is jointly supporting with another area lawmaker, Republican Rep. Beth Van Duyne.

Allred doesn’t believe the price tag will cause alarm among constituents or become a political liability. “I think it will be very difficult to say that investing in DFW airport in Dallas, Texas is a bad idea,” he said, noting the airport’s role in the local economy.

According to the Texas comptroller’s office, about 7% of the state’s total international trade flows through DFW, which overall contributes about $25 billion to the state’s economy and supports nearly 164,000 jobs. It was the third-busiest airport in the world for the last two years in takeoffs and landings, according to Airports Council International, and ranked 10th pre-pandemic for passengers getting on and off planes before jumping to fourth place last year.

Separately, Allred has requested $19.7 million in project funding for a separate surface transportation reauthorization bill the House Transportation and Infrastructure plans to take up.

Rep. Matt Cartwright doesn’t expect voters in his eastern Pennsylvania district will be swayed one way or another by the fact he’s requested $27.6 million for 10 appropriations projects, which he’ll have some say in as chairman of the panel’s Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee.

“I’ve been through two energetic elections, 2018 and 2020, and the charges that my opponents leveled had so little basis in fact that it makes me think something real like community project funding would not interest them,” Cartwright said.

Cartwright’s project requests include $2.1 million for the Wilkes-Barre police department to purchase software that can identify gunshots and $2 million for Lackawanna County law enforcement to step up efforts to combat drug, gang and gun violence. Both are under his subcommittee’s jurisdiction.

In the is file photo from July 25, 2019, Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa. from Pennsylvania's 8th U.S. Congressional District, speaks during a news conference at the Capitol building, in Washington.

Other examples include $1.8 million for mental health and substance abuse services at the Greater Scranton YMCA, and $5.5 million to build a new police and fire facility in Moosic, Pa.

Separately, Cartwright submitted about $20 million in surface transportation bill requests.

The fifth-term congressman won last year by about 3.5 points with almost 52% of the vote, though like Allred’s his district will likely look different after redistricting.

A decade in the making

Cartwright and Allred both frequently used the phrase “community project funding” when talking about the new process laid out by House and Senate leaders. That’s a term intended to give earmarks more legitimacy than they’ve previously had, when several high-profile lobbying scandals resulted in a decadelong ban on the special line items.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., placed new transparency requirements and guardrails on the process when they opted to end the ban this year: The total amount of earmarks will be capped at 1% of discretionary funding, the House and Senate spending panels have limited the type of accounts eligible for directed funding, for-profit entities are not eligible and members must post their requests online.

The House capped member requests at 10 each, though no similar restriction exists in the Senate.

Not all at-risk Democrats are participating, however.

In this Nov. 6, 2018, file photo, Katie Porter speaks during an election night event in Tustin, Calif.

California Rep. Katie Porter has been vocal in her opposition to earmarks, and she is the sole House Democrat not requesting community project funding in an appropriations bill or separate surface transportation measure.

Porter has taken a stance opposite her party’s leaders on the issue, arguing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that unelected officials in the executive branch should be in charge of divvying up the federal dollars that Congress appropriates, not lawmakers.

“Normally, Congress determines funding levels for broad priorities, like the Highway Trust Fund. The agency that administers that pool of funding then determines how exactly to allocate it. Projects are given priority based on the overseeing agency’s determination of need,” she wrote. “The division in responsibility between the legislative and executive branches maintains a degree of neutrality in federal spending. But earmarking deviates from this process.”

Earmark proponents, including House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, have argued that members of Congress know their districts better than those officials and are better able to advocate for needed projects. They’ve also said that it is Congress’ constitutional responsibility to determine where federal departments and agencies spend the money lawmakers appropriated.

GOP divisions

It’s not just at-risk Democrats lining up to get a slice of the pie — 16 of 21 Republicans from swing districts that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has identified as in play have asked the spending panel to back projects in their districts. The list also includes party leaders such as House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and GOP Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik of New York.

Earmark requests by Republicans, which account for about one-third of the House lawmakers participating but 45% of the funding requested, could become an issue during GOP primary campaigns. Several long-serving Republicans have opposed a return to earmarks.

Cam Savage, a founder and principal at Limestone Strategies who works with GOP candidates, said midterm elections “particularly tend to swing on national news, big important issues and not on microtrends.” But he didn’t rule out earmarks playing a role in some races.

“It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that people will run ads on these kinds of things, depending on the project, depending on how important the project is to voters in their district,” he said. “The problem with a lot of these things is they tend to be pretty niche.”

Savage said one of the main themes of incumbents in tough reelection contests is showing how they delivered for their districts, and securing earmark funding could be one way of doing that. But that likely won’t be enough to swing undecided voters, he said.

“Is it possible that one of these things that you’re working on … affects the race of a member or two? Sure, I think, that’s possible. Is it likely that it would affect a lot of them? No. History would tell us that’s not really how it works,” Savage said.