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Washington state members of Congress are all-in for the return of earmarks

Senator Maria Cantwell speaks about the need for federal action to combat the affordable housing crisis in Spokane, Thursday, July 1, 2021. The press event and site tour took place at Gonzaga Family Haven, a 73-unit affordable family housing complex under construction on North Nevada Street.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
By Jim Brunner Seattle Times

Earmarks are back and Washington’s congressional delegation is all in.

The spending-bill line items, which allow members of Congress to direct dollars to specific projects back home, have been revived after a decadelong abolishment spurred by a series of scandals.

While conservative Republicans lawmakers in some states have refused to participate, Washington’s three GOP U.S. House members are united with Democrats in lining up for the spending buffet.

In all, the state’s 10 House representatives have requested more than $162 million in earmarks through the House Appropriations Committee. In the Senate, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have sought a combined $307 million.

The funding would go to hundreds of varied projects, from low-income housing in Seattle to electric buses in Everett, early learning classrooms in Kirkland, a rail terminal in Quincy and a new drinking-water system for Airway Heights.

Earmarked money could also electrify a Port of Seattle cruise ship terminal, cutting emissions from docked ships running diesel engines, and help Aberdeen and Hoquiam build levees to halt flooding that has hurt their economies.

The requests are no guarantee of funding, as massive spending bills wind their way through Congress, with final packages expected to be hammered out later this fall. New earmarks also could be added during that process.

Earmarks 2.0

Earmark backers from both parties say these are not the corrupt spending items of the past, which led to influence-peddling schemes like those that sent Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California and lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison, and spurred controversy over pork-barrel projects such as Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.”

Rather, supporters say, Earmarks 2.0 are a shiny and reformed version, with serious ethical guardrails in place. They’re not even calling them earmarks, officially branding them “congressionally directed spending” in the Senate and “community project funding” in the House.

Those differences between the new earmarks and the older version are “not solely semantic,” said U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D- Gig Harbor, who advocated for a reformed earmark system as part of a larger effort to modernize Congress.

“What has been put forward here is something completely different because it has a level of accountability and transparency and limitation that didn’t exist previously,” he said.

Among the changes: Earmarks cannot be directed to for-profit entities and lawmakers must certify that neither they nor family members have a financial interest in funded projects. In addition, the Government Accountability Office will audit a random sample of earmarks and House Democratic leaders have said they’ll cap total earmarks at 1% of discretionary spending.

“This is a substantially reformed process that allows representatives to advocate for community projects,” said U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R- Spokane, who has requested $56 million in earmarks through the Appropriations Committee, more than any other Washington House member.

“I represent a lot of rural, smaller communities and towns that don’t have the resources to hire a grant writer,” McMorris Rodgers said.

Her requests include $21 million for a new water system for Airway Heights, where the water supply has been contaminated by firefighting foam, and $6 million for the tiny Whitman County town of Malden, which was devastated in a wildfire last year.

McMorris Rodgers, who has represented Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District since 2005, was among the House Republicans who had criticized the previous earmarks process and pushed for reforms.

But after winning a majority in the House in 2010 amid the tea party backlash to President Barack Obama, the House GOP banned earmarks.

Murray: longtime earmark defender

Some veteran lawmakers never wanted earmarks to go away.

Even at the height of the anti-earmark movement a decade ago, Murray backed reforms, but defended earmarked spending as a key exercise of congressional power that allows elected representatives sway over funding for key projects in their states.

“I have been very frustrated since [earmarks] ended, because instead of having an opportunity to fight for communities, to be transparent to my voters, to the people of Washington state, I’ve been relegated to fighting in some backroom with bureaucrats,” said Murray, who was first elected in 1992 and is the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat.

In 2010, the last year in which earmarks were allowed, Murray ranked ninth in the Senate, sponsoring 190 of them worth $220 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. This year, she has requested $189 million for more than 100 projects across the state, including road, bridge and transit projects, affordable housing and fish habitat.

Some of Murray’s past earmarks were held up by critics as examples of wasteful spending.

In 2002, she helped insert $4.5 million into a spending measure to force the Navy to buy an 85-foot speedboat from an Edmonds shipbuilder. The boat was never used by the Navy and sat idle, and was later given to the University of Washington, which also found no use for it, according to a 2007 investigative report in The Seattle Times.

In addition, Murray’s aides, like those of other powerful appropriators, have frequently followed the “revolving door” path, becoming lobbyists who tout connections to their former boss. In 2010, at least nine of Murray’s defense-bill earmarks, worth $19.5 million, were awarded to clients of her former aides turned lobbyists.

Critic: “nefarious” deals inevitable

Critics of earmarks say their return will inevitably result in more questionable projects and ethical questions.

“It doesn’t take a whole lot of experience to know there are going to be loopholes. It’s only a matter of time before we see nefarious stuff crop up,” said Sean Kennedy, director of policy and research for Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington, D.C.-based group that has long opposed earmarks.

Kennedy said the system of divvying up federal dollars based on political sway in Congress subverts processes such as competitive grants. “The system shouldn’t work that the more powerful you are the more your community gets,” he said.

In addition, Kennedy said, the public disclosure of earmarks could use a lot of improvement, pointing to varying methods of listing them by various committees – some of them not easily readable.

“To call this whole package transparent and searchable is really stretching the definition of the word transparent,” he said, adding that Congress should insist all earmarks are listed in searchable and sortable spreadsheets.

However, some policy analysts have argued the return of more-transparent earmarks is good news.

“In a very direct way, the earmark ban stripped power from the people and their representatives in Congress and made the practice more likely to be corrupted, not less so,” argued John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writing earlier this year. If problems arise, he added, Congress should consider further reforms to earmarking “rather than take a knee-jerk response of banning it.”

Murray said the return of the congressionally controlled spending also could help bring about more bipartisan deal-making in a bitterly divided Congress. “I do believe when people have skin in the game in terms of what’s in a bill, they are more likely to work with others to get it passed,” she said.

Community support for projects

Another shift in the new earmarking system is a requirement to document community support for projects.

Earlier this spring, when congressional offices advertised they were accepting earmark proposals, those that brought testimonials and letters of support were more likely to get the backing of House members, who were limited to submitting 10 requests each.

Kilmer said earmarks can help fill the gaps for community needs that might be urgent, yet not qualify for a particular federal grant program. “Sometimes it’s just hard to find a program that is a direct fit,” he said.

Kilmer said his office sorted through 110 applications for funding before picking his chosen projects for the 6th Congressional District, which includes the Olympic Peninsula and Tacoma area.

One that made the cut: an ambitious 11-mile levee-construction project to put an end to periodic coastal flooding in Aberdeen and Hoquiam that has made it difficult for the economically depressed cities to attract development.

The levees plus a pump station would cost an estimated $120 million, according to Brian Shay, Hoquiam’s city administrator. A $3 million earmark requested by Kilmer would help push along the effort, which backers are trying to get shovel-ready within two years with a mix of state and federal funding.

If the levees are successful, Shay said, local residents would no longer have to pay flood insurance or jack up their houses by 5 feet if doing major renovations. Local boosters hope that could jump-start economic activity. “People are going to save a ton of money that they could save for college, or buy a car – it’s really a huge deal,” he said.

The levee project fit with Kilmer’s priorities for earmark requests, including job growth, climate resiliency and equity. Among his other requests were earmarks totaling more than $4 million to help three tribal communities relocate out of the way of coastal flooding and tsunami zones.

Climate change was also a factor in some of Murray’s earmark proposals, including $3 million to help the Port of Seattle complete a $20 million installation of shore power at Pier 66 on the downtown waterfront.

That project would enable Seattle-based Alaska cruise ships to no longer have to run polluting engines while docked. Once complete, that could avoid an estimated 1,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emission, according to the Port.

“The ability to have shore power at berth is really a huge opportunity for the Port to address that large source of emissions,” said Alex Adams, senior environmental programs manager for the Port.

Murray, who is seeking a sixth term next year, said she hopes the revived earmarking process will show people the value of advocacy from their elected representatives.

“Having this money, upfront, honest and transparent … is a way that people in our country can see why it’s in the bill, what we’re fighting for, and know that their member of Congress is doing their job fighting for their constituents,” she said.