After a decade-long exile, congressional leaders this year brought back earmarks — the special budget items that allow federal lawmakers to single out projects for their districts. The revival comes with new guidelines designed to bring more transparency to a murky process that doled out plenty of pork.
But six of Georgia’s eight Republicans in the U.S. House declined to participate, citing the prodigious past outcry over corruption and wasteful spending linked to the earmarking process.
That’s left local officials in their districts, which span all of far North Georgia and parts of the rest of the state, in search of other, more traditional ways to get their priorities funded.
“It’s really for us about having a good strong relationship with our delegation, and helping them understand the needs of my community,” said Tifton Mayor Julie Smith, who’s seeking funding to repave decaying roads and extend sidewalks.
“If it’s not through the earmark process, we’ll find other ways,” Smith said. “It’s all about communication.”
Big and small
The earmarks aren’t set to factor into the infrastructure package that’s heading toward a U.S. Senate vote. But the $138 million worth of projects submitted by Georgia’s delegation could wind up in separate multitrillion-dollar spending bills later this year.
Earmarks, of course, aren’t the only way lawmakers can funnel federal dollars to their districts. Vast sums for transportation projects are allocated through a separate process that funds repairs to freeways, bridges and other key infrastructure. There are myriad other methods lawmakers can use to finagle priorities into the law.
But earmarks offer a more streamlined way to ensure hometown improvements get financed and, perhaps, could help pave the way for the sort of horse trading that leads to more bipartisan agreement.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
This year’s list includes projects as minor as sidewalk improvements, parks and trails, to more ambitious developments such as research facilities and theater renovations.
Even the smallest of allocations can have an outsized impact. Pelham, a town of roughly 4,000 in southwest Georgia, secured a $225,000 earmark for a public safety hub. Mayor James Eubanks said it will ensure that emergency responders are using the same system to communicate.
“We found a great need for streamlined communication after severe weather events, and this is trying to do something that will benefit everybody in the community,” said Eubanks, who praised U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, for including the spending.
But many other priorities in districts represented by the six Georgia lawmakers who reject earmarks were left off the funding list. That means the bulk of the projects are in metro Atlanta, along the coast and in southwest Georgia. Much of rural Georgia isn’t represented.
The Republican critics say they have good reason to object to the process. U.S. Rep. Rick Allen of Evans called earmarks a symptom of “wasteful Washington spending.” His colleague, U.S. Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton, predicted Democrats would use them as a tool to politicize public funding.
‘A different route’
Other Republicans, however, have embraced the idea. U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, has said if used properly, earmarks for projects such as the expansion of the Port of Savannah are “anything but pork.” He’s responsible for the biggest-ticket item on the Georgia ledger this year: a nearly $30 million plan to reduce gridlock along busy DeRenne Avenue in Savannah.
Brian Brodrick, the mayor of Watkinsville in northeast Georgia, wants federal funding to expand broadband in Oconee County, improve pedestrian mobility and ease congestion from the convoys of trucks ferrying cargo to and from the state’s booming ports.
But since the area’s congressman, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, opposes the earmark process, Brodrick is leaning on more traditional means for funding: building relationships with the state, nonprofits and other local governments to press their case.
“We’ve got to find other ways to get the money if we’re not on an earmark,” he said. “I’m supportive of the investment in the ports, of course, but we also have to find a way to deepen the investment in the corridors leading to the ports. Some of them just weren’t designed for heavy traffic.”
The same goes for Athens-Clarke Mayor Kelly Girtz, who said local leaders have long searched for ways to give a predominantly Black neighborhood wedged near a highway better pedestrian access to a nearby grocery store. Instead of an earmark, he said, his community is seeking a federal grant from the Biden administration.
“We just have to take a different route,” he said. “If I get frustrated at things that don’t work exactly the way I want, I’d just stay frustrated all the time. So we have to adapt.”
If Pennington were in Congress, he’d probably have the same stance as U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — his congresswoman — in opposing earmarks.
His challenge to then-Gov. Nathan Deal in 2014 was built around the idea that Republicans were “masquerading as conservatives.” Every chance he got, he said the state’s budget was in dire need of a haircut.
But as a mayor, he knows it could have been much easier to get the funding to improve stormwater drainage through an earmark than seeking alternative ways to fund the improvements. The city is exploring grants, bonds and other financing methods.
“It’s expensive,” he said, “but we’ll find a way.”
WHAT ARE EARMARKS?
Members of Congress can request federal dollars for specific projects, or earmarks, in their districts.
Then-U.S. House Speaker John Boehner banned earmarks in 2011, citing instances of waste and abuse.
Democratic leaders have brought the process back this year but with new limitations and transparency requirements they say will improve public confidence.