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Don’t call them ‘earmarks,’ but return of lawmaker-directed spending could send millions to Eastern Washington while North Idaho’s Fulcher opts out

UPDATED: Thu., May 27, 2021

Shawn Thornton hugs his wife, Shannon Thornton, next to the rubble of their home that was burned in a wildfire on Sept. 8, 2020, in Malden, Wash.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Thornton hugs his wife, Shannon Thornton, next to the rubble of their home that was burned in a wildfire on Sept. 8, 2020, in Malden, Wash. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Clean drinking water for Airway Heights, where the groundwater is contaminated with toxic chemicals: $21 million.

A sewer system for Malden, whose residents’ septic systems were destroyed along with their homes in last year’s devastating wildfire: $6 million.

Relocating Walla Walla County’s 911 dispatch and emergency operations center, which sits on a location vulnerable to both earthquakes and flooding: $2.75 million.

The return of congressional earmarks, a practice lawmakers banned a decade ago amid allegations of corruption and wasteful spending, could direct billions to local needs across the country. But a split among Republicans means North Idaho won’t see any of that money.

Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, whose districts cover Eastern and Central Washington, are among just over half of House Republicans who have submitted requests to direct federal funds to projects in their districts.

Proponents, including every House Democrat but one, say reforms will make the revamped process more transparent and prevent the wasteful spending on lawmakers’ pet projects that drove Congress to abandon the process.

Supporters say the process also gives individual lawmakers a say in how federal money is spent, helping to foster bipartisanship in an era of intense political division, and puts decision-making power in the hands of representatives who know their communities’ needs better than the White House and federal agencies.

“That’s our fundamental responsibility as legislators,” McMorris Rodgers said. “I believe that as the representative for the 5th district, I should be able to submit projects for consideration that, in many cases, otherwise would not get consideration.”

Critics like Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, warn the return of earmarks could pave the way for frivolous federal spending, although the process lets lawmakers direct existing funds and does not increase federal spending.

“These funds might be pre-approved on the first go-round, but the policy of earmarks will remain,” Fulcher said. “The bigger issue for me is the debt. Every single appropriation, every single bill that we sign off on, is an invoice to our grandkids.”

“The debt will come back and bite us. It’s a matter of time. And I think the earmark program, overall, hurts more than it helps.”

The new House earmark process, officially called “community project funding” in the Appropriations Committee and “member designated projects” in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, lets each lawmaker request a portion of funds that would already be spent.

“We’re not talking about new dollars,” Newhouse said. “This is money that is appropriated, and we have a say in where it goes versus that faceless bureaucrat in some office that has likely never even heard of Yakima, Washington. … Why should they be making those choices instead of us?”

Not every request will be approved, and House Democrats have said the money available through the process will be capped at 1% of discretionary spending, the money Congress appropriates each year, separate from mandatory spending on programs like Social Security.

President Joe Biden requested $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending for fiscal year 2022. While Congress doesn’t appropriate exactly what presidents ask for, Biden’s request suggests about $15 billion could be allocated through earmarks.

Earmarks have been part of the federal budget process since the first Congress in 1789, but they gained notoriety after a string of scandals in the early 2000s, including a California Republican who famously drew up a “bribe menu” showing what it would cost to secure government contracts.

“Earmarks went away because a small number of members of Congress abused them,” said Kevin Kosar, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. “Unfortunately, in the course of doing that, they kind of threw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Wary of repeating those mistakes, House lawmakers made several changes to the process, including banning earmarks to for-profit companies and requiring members to certify they and their immediate families have no financial interest in the projects they request funding for.

“There were some huge issues with how earmarks used to be run,” said Newhouse, who serves on the Appropriations Committee and strongly objects to applying the baggage-laden term to the new process.

“We tried to learn from the past and not put into place a system that would lend itself to some of the things that happened before.”

Both committees also require lawmakers to post the details of all their requests on their websites, and all of the requests are listed in publicly available spreadsheets.

Kosar said the return of earmarks could especially benefit rural areas, which often lack the resources cities have to seek out other sources of federal funding.

“Through the years I found that there were projects in communities, especially in the small towns and cities that I represent, (where) it was extremely difficult for them to get funding,” McMorris Rodgers said.

“Larger cities and counties, you would see that they were hiring the people that could help them, the grant writers or others that would advocate with the agencies on their behalf,” she said. “Versus a small town – and Malden is a great example – where they don’t have the resources to be hiring those kinds of people.”

Between the two committees, McMorris Rodgers requested a total of roughly $196 million and Newhouse requested $44 million.

In the Senate, which has to sign off on appropriations proposed by the House, Democrats have supported the return of earmarks, while Republicans are also divided.

In a statement, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she is “excited about the direction we’re heading in.”

“My job as senator is to fight for Washington state in the other Washington,” Murray said, “so I have always been supportive of making sure members of Congress have an opportunity to put funding for specific projects into appropriations bills that meet the needs of communities in their state.”

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said in an interview he is open to the process, provided it “is done appropriately,” while his fellow Idaho Republican, Sen. Jim Risch, has said he opposes the return of earmarks.


Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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