Georgia Democrats embrace return of earmarks for local projects

Republican members say bringing them back is a mistake
Savannah's harbor has likely benefited the most from congressional projects over the years. The funding practice has been on hold for about a decade, meaning Georgia's congressional delegation has had to find other ways to fund the harbor's dredging project to accommodate larger cargo ships. by the time the work is done, the project is expected to cost nearly $1 billion. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Savannah's harbor has likely benefited the most from congressional projects over the years. The funding practice has been on hold for about a decade, meaning Georgia's congressional delegation has had to find other ways to fund the harbor's dredging project to accommodate larger cargo ships. by the time the work is done, the project is expected to cost nearly $1 billion. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop already has an idea about the types of requests for money that might come across his desk soon.

He expects to hear from rural municipalities that want to modernize wastewater treatment plants, sheriff’s departments looking to upgrade equipment and public universities with lists of delayed capital projects.

For the first time in a decade, Bishop will have an opportunity to have the Congress approve money for specific projects, or earmarks, in his districts. Bishop and his colleagues officially calls them “community projects,” and government spending watchdogs have traditionally labeled some of the projects “pork.”

But the point is, the U.S. House under the control of Democrats is bringing back earmarks, although it is unclear how many Republicans, if any, will ask for them. The Senate is deciding whether it will follow suit, with leaders of both parties discussing how it would work in that chamber.

Earmarks were banned in 2011 by then-U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, who cited instances of abuse and scandal. Before then, members of both parties and in both chambers had grown accustomed to working the process and getting money in the budget for local projects such as transit system upgrades or new equipment for military facilities.

House Democrats say earmarking money for specific needs in specific places allows members of Congress a more active role in determining how taxpayer funds are spent. Right now, these kinds of local projects are still being funded, but with civil servants in Washington making the decisions instead of the elected officials who know their districts best, proponents say.

They believe that more transparency and stricter rules to limit its use can avoid the kind of controversies that doomed earmarking in the past. Each member of the House can back no more than 10 projects, and the total amount of earmarks cannot surpass 1% of the discretionary, or nonessential, spending. Discretionary spending totals $1.4 trillion annually, meaning the earmark cap would be $14 billion.

Bishop, the longest-serving member of Georgia’s congressional delegation and chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee for agriculture, grew adept at working the earmark process back when it was allowed. He said the new limitations mean he will have to prioritize.

“As the elected representative for my district, I want to do everything that I can to maximize the resources that I can bring to my congressional district to help enhance the quality of life of the people there,” the Albany Democrat said.

Many Republicans don’t see it that way. GOP members of Georgia’s delegation said they worry earmarks will add to the national debt, which is climbing. However, Republicans were equal participants in earmarking back when it was allowed, and the GOP pushed a massive tax cut in 2017 that increased the national debt.

Not one Republican member who responded to questions by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said he or she planned to seek earmarks this year.

U.S. Reps. Rick Allen of Evans and Jody Hice of Greensboro said earmarks would exacerbate federal spending and make it harder to pay back America’s debt. U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, said he is concerned that Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will further politicize the appropriations process.

“Pelosi will have control over the earmark and the bucket of funds that goes out, and she’s going to use it to further her control over the Democratic Conference,” he said.

The larger House GOP Conference caucus, however, appears more divided. Its members debated the pros and cons of earmarks during a closed-door meeting last week, and there was no consensus opinion. House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana said more discussion is needed.

“Our members have a lot of different views on this, but one thing I think is universal is we share a lot of concern about the abuses that happened in the past and we don’t want to see those abuses brought back,” he said. “So, this is going to be a continuing conversation amongst House Republicans.”

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, whose district includes the project in Georgia that has likely benefited the most from earmarks over the years — Savannah’s harbor — hasn’t yet taken a position on earmarks. In the past, he expressed support for bringing them back. But his office said recently that he is still waiting for more information on the new process.

In 2017, Carter and every other member of the state’s congressional delegation, both Republicans and Democrats, signed a letter recommending that Congress increase funding for a program the Army Corps of Engineers drew from to fund dredging projects nationwide. Their hope was that some of the money would trickle down to Savannah, which had already begun deepening the harbor to make way for larger container ships, an effort carrying a nearly $1 billion price tag.

That indirect way of getting money to Savannah didn’t sit well with Carter at the time.

“It’s something we really need to look at, particularly with the corps,” the Pooler Republican said then.

The House Appropriations Committee outlined the new earmark guidelines in late February. Details of every request must be immediately posted online, and lawmakers are barred from supporting projects that bring financial benefit to them or their immediate families. There will be a mandatory audit of a sample of the projects to ensure the money was spent responsibly, for-profit companies are not eligible for earmarks and every request must be backed up with evidence of community support.

Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut said the goal is to find a responsible way to bring back earmarks and allow Congress to have greater control of federal spending.

“Community project funding restores balance on important decisions about how and where to spend taxpayer dollars, allowing members of Congress to bring their knowledge and experience to the decision-making,” DeLauro said.

Boehner, the speaker who got rid of earmarks, was never a fan of the practice and famously refused to participate. The Senate followed suit.

The most infamous of earmarks labeled as “pork barrel” spending may be the “Bridge to Nowhere” that allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to connect a small town in Alaska to an airport. It was eventually abandoned. In another high-profile incident, a Republican House member from California resigned in 2005 after pleading guilty to accepting kickbacks from a defense contractor.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome, said there are better ways than earmarking to ensure worthy projects receive federal funding.

“As a conservative, being a business owner, you have to be so responsible and careful with your money,” she said. “So I’m against earmarks. I’m just not for them. I think it just leads to pork spending and special interests.”

Former Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston said his fellow Republicans are misguided. The U.S. national debt didn’t stop increasing over the past decade even though earmarks were banished, he noted. He also believes the moratorium allowed the executive branch to grab excessive influence over government spending.

“Those points do not get discussed because the quick political expediency is to say they’re horrible,” said Kingston, who now works as a lobbyist for one of Washington’s most powerful firms. “But again, what does the Constitution say? And the Constitution doesn’t say leave all spending up to Joe Biden or Donald Trump. If you like the way Biden is going to spend the taxpayer money, then don’t try to direct any of it.”

While Georgia’s GOP lawmakers may be hesitant, their Democratic counterparts are ready to give it another try, albeit carefully.

“It gives members of Congress say over some priorities of your district as opposed to just ceding all of that authority to the administration,” said U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, D-Suwanee.

U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath of Marietta said she will listen to her constituents about their needs and decide what makes her final list.

“What I will do is just try to find out from my folks: What do we need? Where are we going? And what do I need to advocate for?” she said. “They always dictate what I do.”

Sample list of Georgia earmarks from fiscal 2010

These projects were backed by both then-U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah, and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany

Georgia Tech Advanced Bio-Engineering for Enhancement of Soldier Survivability, $2.5 million

Morehouse College John H. Hopps Defense Research Scholars Program, $2.4 million

University of Georgia Nanophotonic Biosensor Detection of Bioagents and Pathogens, $1.5 million

Atlanta environmental infrastructure, $1.4 million

Water use efficiency and water quality enhancements in Georgia, $346,000

Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, $300,000

Initiative to improve blueberry production and efficiency in Georgia, $209,000