As G.O.P. Rails Against Federal Spending, Its Appetite for Earmarks Grows

While Democrats claimed a larger share than Republicans of the nearly $16 billion in earmarks in the latest federal spending bill, G.O.P. projects jumped by 85 percent.

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By Stephanie Lai

WASHINGTON — In 2020, Representative Don Bacon, Republican of Nebraska, told C-SPAN that his constituents were not in favor of earmarks, so he wasn’t either.

Two years later, he earmarked a total of $37.9 million in two separate spending bills for projects in his district.

When House Republicans voted to place their own moratorium on earmarks in 2010, Representative Ken Calvert, Republican of California, said the decision was a statement to Americans that “House Republicans are ready to lead the fight for lower spending, more transparency and responsibility in Washington.” In 2022, he secured $56.1 million in earmarks. In a statement, he said that with new, more stringent rules in place, the House was “reasserting its traditional and constitutional role in deciding how our tax dollars are spent.”

And while the House Freedom Caucus, the hard-right Republican group, called last summer for reinstating a ban on earmarks that took effect in 2011, one of its members, Representative Byron Donalds of Florida, secured $25.2 million for projects in his district. In an interview, he too said the changes put in place to make the practice more transparent had made him “more comfortable” with partaking in the age-old congressional ritual.

Even as Republicans, newly empowered after taking control of the House, call for deep government spending cuts and accuse Democrats of profligacy with taxpayer dollars, a growing number of them have joined Democrats in helping themselves to larger amounts of cash for their states and districts in the form of earmarks — now rebranded as “community project funding” — that allow lawmakers to direct federal money to pet projects.

A review by The New York Times of the nearly $16 billion in earmarks included in the $1.7 trillion spending law enacted in December — more than 7,200 projects in all — revealed that earmarks requested by members of both parties skyrocketed over the last year. And while Democrats secured a greater amount of spending on pet projects overall than Republicans did, the increase in G.O.P. earmarks since last spring was larger.

Compared to spending legislation in March, the number of earmarks in the December bill rose by more than 2,200, costing $7 billion more, with Democrats outspending Republicans by $2.3 billion. Republican members secured 85 percent more in spending for pet projects in the latest funding package than in previous one, whereas Democrats’ increase was 70 percent.

The totals still pale in comparison to the heyday of earmarking — lawmakers claimed $32 billion worth in the 2010 fiscal year, before the prohibition went into effect — but the uptick reflects a bipartisan return in enthusiasm for the practice.

Republican lawmakers claimed eight of the 10 most expensive earmarks, with Representative Brian Mast of Florida, securing the largest: $447 million for an ecosystem restoration project in South Florida.

At the same time, Republicans’ growing appetite for earmarks did not translate into broader support among them for the spending bill itself; in fact, the number of G.O.P. lawmakers who secured funding for their requested projects but still opposed the appropriations package measure increased substantially. The disconnect reflects the intensity of the party’s anti-spending fervor and how many Republicans have sought to distance themselves from the must-pass funding bills that keep the government running, even as they profit politically from their enactment.

Earmarks make up less than 1 percent of the discretionary spending allocated annually by Congress, but they have sometimes been abused in the past — a number of scandals led to the ban in 2011 — and are often condemned, particularly by Republicans, as a symbol of Washington’s addiction to spending. Critics deride earmarks as “pork,” a term with a murky history that was used around the turn of the 20th century to compare lawmakers’ zeal for federal money to tales of enslaved people rushing toward barrels of salted pork.

“Earmarks are a fundamentally corrupt practice,” said Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who did not request any earmarks. “I think they are the gateway drug to out-of-control government spending and the debt that is crushing future generations.”

But many lawmakers and scholars argue that earmarks fulfill a vital function of Congress, and help to grease the wheels of the legislative process by giving individuals members tangible reasons to negotiate spending deals.

“Building coalitions to get things done can often require horse trading and trades between members, and so when you have something like an earmark, it can serve that function,” said Molly E. Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research group.

Both Parties Secured More Earmarks in the Latest Spending Bill

Republicans obtained 85 percent more in spending on earmarks in the December spending bil than in the previous one. Democrats’ increase was 70 percent.

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