Earmarks are back. USA Today looks at the congressionally directed spending that’s been included in various bill this year and found that the U.S. House approved $5.7 billion in earmarks as part of the highway bill, $3.7 billion included in Federal agency appropriations, and more is likely to be added as the House and Senate wrangle through the infrastructure measure. The paper spoke with Congressional Institute president Mark Strand, who has said that directing Federal spending should be the purview of Members of Congress and not the Administration.

Read the full article here. NOTE: It’s behind a paywall.

Here’s how the article begins:

Congress has started requesting earmarks for their districts, from pig mitigation to a presidential library

Congress will haggle for months over how much to spend and where. But the requests so far reveal what types of projects lawmakers want funded, who asked for a lot, who didn’t ask for anything; and whether earmarks can serve as incentives to get lawmakers to approve larger pieces of legislation, like infrastructure spending.

About three-quarters of House members requested earmarks, including all but one Democrat and about half of Republicans. About two-thirds of the Senate requested earmarks, with nearly all Democrats and about one-third of Republicans making requests.

Early voting revealed earmarks haven’t managed to build bipartisan support for House legislation; that just one project can make or break a lawmaker’s wish list; and that lawmakers in competitive districts are asking for more projects, perhaps in an effort to boost their prospects for reelection.

“It’s always pork when it’s in the next-door neighbor’s district and it’s a vitally needed project when it’s in your district,” said Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute after 24 years as a congressional staffer.

The article notes that, “Most of the earmarks proposed this year – pages and pages of them – direct spending toward routine water, road or community development projects.”

While Congress is bitterly divided on partisan lines, House Transportation Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said that he has no plans to cancel out Republican earmarks “in retaliation for voting against whole bills,” calling them “meritorious projects.”

When House Republicans took the majority in 2010, they passed a Conference rule banning earmarks. House Democrats and the Senate had no choice but to comply since no bills containing earmarks would have made it through the House. Since the majority swapped to Democrats in 2018, there has been talk of reinstating earmarks. Although they have been abused in the past, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress put forth a process under which earmarks would be offered in complete transparency. More Democrats have embraced earmarks than Republicans, but Strand offered some thoughts as to why lawmakers in both parties are willing to embrace this practice. From the article:

“I think even the Democrats realized they had to go into this together with the Republicans,” Strand said. “I also think it’s in the Republicans’ interest to do that because they can go home and say, ‘Even though I’m in the minority, look what I got done for you.’”

Still, the bills containing earmarks are still moving through either the House or the Senate, and there’s no guarantee that any projects will receive funding. More from the article:

Democratic policies could alienate Republican support for overall legislation, even with earmarks. For example, Democrats dropped a longstanding provision from a funding bill for the Department of Health and Human Services that prohibited the government from paying for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother. No Republicans supported the bill even though 75 had earmarks in it.

“As a Republican, you can’t be seen as voting in favor of repealing the Hyde amendment, no matter what earmarks you got in your district,” Strand said, referring the provision nicknamed for former Rep. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill.

More votes are expected before spending bills are ultimately approved, so compromises might eventually yield more Republican support.

“I think everybody realizes there are several acts to this play,” Strand said.