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‘Earmarks’ are back, but not all Alabama lawmakers are participating

By TODD STACY and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – It has a new name and many new requirements, but the process known as earmarking, or designating federal funds for distribution at the request of members of Congress, is now officially back on Capitol Hill.

This spring, the House Appropriations Committee invited all House members to submit proposals for “Community Project Funding,” a new term for the age-old practice of earmarking that has been banned by rule for the past ten years. In a new effort at ensuring transparency, those proposed projects have been published member by member.

Earmarks were the way of Washington until 2011 when House Speaker John Boehner and the GOP conference banned them. This came after multiple instances of misuse of earmarks reached the national political discussion, including the so-called “bridge to nowhere” famously railed on by the late Sen. John McCain when he was running for president in 2008. The GOP eagerly banned them when they next returned to power, however many privately complained that without earmarks, Congress simply ceded its constitutional authority over the nation’s pursestrings to the executive branch.

Congress would continue to pass appropriations bills, but without specifically writing into the law where certain monies were to go, executive agencies had a lot of spending leeway. Some in the GOP continue to oppose the idea, warning that it will once again lead to misuse.

Alabama’s House delegation was split on the prospect of placing community projects in the budget. Reps. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, Mike Rogers, R-Saks, Jerry Carl, R-Mobile and Terri Sewell, D-Selma each submitted multiple projects for consideration, while Reps. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, Gary Palmer, R-Birmingham, and Barry Moore, R-Enterprise, did not.

Lawmakers have been told they can put in up to 10 requests, but “nobody will be getting 10 requests,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Funding decisions are expected in late summer or early fall.

Aderholt, who is a senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, submitted four requests: two to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and two to the Appropriations Committee. Among them are an interchange lighting project in Red Bay worth $860,000, a Highway 77 bridge replacement worth $2.8 million, a rural health center in Parrish worth $725,000 and a blight control and affordable housing project in Sheffield worth $225,000. As required, each project comes with a letter from the congressman documenting and explaining the request.

He said the process is much different from what it was previously with more accountability.

“It is much more transparent and the requirements are stricter,” he said in an email to ADN. “They have to have widespread support in the community and they need to be projects that were already well along the path to completion. This way tax dollars aren’t being spent for things that ultimately won’t be completed. The projects we submitted met these requirements and were capable of being submitted in the short timeframe we had this first year.  Each request is different, and my staff and I are always happy to receive updates and to consider a request again the following year.”

Asked why he didn’t submit requests, Moore said in their current form, earmarks are “nothing more than a corrupt currency Democrats are trying to revive in order to perpetuate log rolling in politics.”

“Supporting legislation should be about helping our constituents, not scratching each other’s backs for political gain,” he told ADN. “In the Alabama State Legislature, we used the Education Trust Fund in a way that essentially provided each representative with the same amount of money to fund projects in their districts, and I think a similar system could work in Congress.”

Next year’s state education budget includes about $10 million in a Community Services Grant Program that lawmakers can distribute in their local communities as they see fit.

Brooks’ and Palmer’s offices declined to comment on why they opted not to submit any funding requests. Brooks previously told ADN that earmarks “are a way of rewarding those people who vote with the leadership on bad legislation, and it’s a way of punishing those that don’t.”

Many who have supported the return of congressionally-directed project spending say the alternative is handing control over the nation’s pursestrings to President Joe Biden and executive branch agencies, when the Constitution intended it to be with Congress.

Carl submitted 10 requests, including $1.3 million to repair a hurricane-caused breach on Little Dauphin Island, $500,000 for mental health law enforcement training at the University of South Alabama, $233,000 to improve the meters and acquire a visibility station at the Port of Mobile, $1.5 million for the Africatown Welcome Center and several road projects throughout Southwest Alabama.

“Congressman Carl chose projects important to the livelihood of the First Congressional District – critical improvements to our district’s infrastructure, educational programs, hurricane recovery efforts, and the training of new police officers and first responders,” press secretary Zach Weidlich told ADN. “Rather than allowing unelected bureaucrats to decide how our money is best spent, Congressman Carl is committed to doing all he can to ensure our tax dollars are spent as wisely and efficiently as possible in south Alabama.”

Rogers sent four project requests to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, including $8 million for the realignment of SR-22 to US-431 in Randolph County, $986,000 for the widening of U.S. 411 in St. Clair County, $6.6 million for a rail grade crossing in Ragland and $1.8 million for lighting and landscaping along I-85 in Lee County. Among his five Appropriations Committee requests are $2.2 million to address groundwater contamination in Fruithurst, $510,000 for a regional law enforcement training center in Cherokee County, $1.8 million for the ADCI Business Center Complex in Auburn, $6.9 million for emergency operations center upgrades in St. Clair County and $10 million for a Tuskegee-Auburn center for airfield pavement studies.

Sewell submitted ten requests to the Appropriations Committee. Among them were $550,000 for community-oriented police training in Selma, $1.4 million for an employment and training program through Birmingham-based Cornerstone Revitalization Foundation, $3 million to the City of Birmingham to redevelop parts of North Birmingham affected by environmental concerns, $474,355 for the Small Business Accelerator in Central Alabama, $700,000 for a wastewater treatment efforts in Lowndes County, $480,000 for drinking water improvement in Marion, $2 million for a inland intermodal transfer facility for the Alabama Port Authority, $563,900 for construction of Hill Hospital in Sumter County, $300,000 for a community health worker initiative in Tuscaloosa County and $801,941 for a workforce development project at Stillman College.

Spokespersons for Rogers and Sewell did not respond to requests for comment about their requests.

Aderholt said new transparency measures include:

  • Requiring members to submit funding requests electronically;
  • Requests are searchable by the public;
  • Requests included in bills will be released 24 hours ahead of full committee mark-up;
  • Members must certify they have no financial interests in CPF projects.

Also, community project spending will only make up about about $14 billion, or 1% of discretionary spending, according to the House Appropriations Committee. And that’s not new spending on top of an existing appropriations plan, but rather dollars that would have been spent anyway. The earmark simply designates where to spend it.

Asked why he opted to make the requests when some of the delegation members are not, Aderholt said banning earmarks does not save tax dollars.

“Look at our national debt, it has skyrocketed in the years since the ban went into place,” he said. “Also, removing earmarks has given the executive branch, and unelected bureaucrats, the power of the purse which should be reserved for Congress. In fact, the Constitution demands it. Members of Congress, and their staffs, know the needs of their Districts far better than a bureaucrat sitting at a desk in some Washington office building.  Why should these unelected bureaucrats get to decide how people’s tax dollars are spent? And one other thing I think is important, when earmarks were removed, we saw funds reallocated to larger states and away from smaller, rural communities.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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