House earmarks requests: Why, what, and who?


This year, after a 10-year moratorium, the majority leadership in the House of Representatives reinstituted the ability of members to submit federal funding requests for projects in their districts. More commonly known as “earmarks,” requests for local, regional, or state funding have existed since the first Congress.

They have returned, along with some major modifications that have increased transparency and placed limits on spending. Now called “Community Project Funding” by the Appropriations Committee, and “Member Designated Projects” in the Transportation Committee, 345 congressmembers submitted 5,402 requests for a combined $22 billion in funding for FY2022.

The Appropriations and Transportation committees have released their approved project requests, but there is still a long way to go to see how (or whether) they will be integrated into a final conference bill signed by the president.

The House has done a solid job of increasing the transparency of the process and making detailed information on requests available to the public in a timely manner. This helped us to provide readers with the why, what, and who of House action so far.

Why did earmarks return?

After a string of well-publicized abuses of this practice by a handful of House members — and a financial downturn that pressured the federal budget — both parties agreed to place a “moratorium” on earmarking in 2011. We argued Congress should bring back earmarking with certain reforms in our February report “Restoring the power of the purse: Earmarks and re-empowering legislators to deliver local benefits.” Our analysis of the earmark moratorium showed its primary effect was to transfer Congress’ constitutional spending authority to the executive. Earmarking had been an important institutional tool that gave Congress spending authority, and it helped decrease polarization and gridlock in the budgeting process.

The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress recommended a new earmark-like program in their 2020 report that emphasized anti-corruption guardrails, transparency, and a more equitable system for allocating resources among members. This spring, the House Appropriations Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee invited members to submit requests under new sets of rules. Appropriations limited members to 10 individual requests, and capped all project funding to 1 percent of discretionary spending (approximately $15 billion in FY2022). Appropriations subcommittee chairs also issued guidance on which federal accounts would accept requests. Transportation had no caps on the amount or number of requests, but it indicated that members would be allocated between $15 and $20 million each.

What projects are they asking to fund via earmarks?

Improving American infrastructure has risen in the national agenda this year, and member project requests reflected this new priority. Over 45 percent of Appropriations project requests were made to the Transportation & HUD subcommittee, and the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee received requests for a combined $14.8 billion (Figure 1). In the years just before the earmark moratorium, defense and military construction dominated earmark funding (Figure 2).

Source: “Table 5,” in “Earmarks Disclosed by Congress: FY2008-FY2010 Regular Appropriations Bills,” Congressional Research Service, April 16, 2010.

House members, 30 percent of whom never experienced a budget process with earmarking, have shifted their priorities quite a bit since the moratorium. Before 2011, defense and military construction accounted for 60 percent of earmark spending. This year, transportation, energy, and water-related spending requests account for the same percentage.

Who is requesting earmarks?

There was decidedly more participation by Democrats in this year’s process, with 92 Republicans choosing not to submit a request. However, the 122 Republicans who did participate requested slightly more from the Appropriations Committee than did their Democrat counterparts (Figure 3). Despite fewer Republicans participating this year, the total amount of funding requested from the Appropriations Committee was about equally split between both parties (Figure 3). Democrats, however, dominated Transportation & Infrastructure requests, requesting 2.5 times the spending as Republicans.

Members submitted an average of about seven requests to the Appropriations Committee. Despite not placing a cap on the number of requests, unlike the limit of 10 imposed by Appropriations, Transportation only received 5.5 requests per member on average. However, Transportation received about twice the amount of money requested as did all of Appropriations. This suggests that the cap on the number of requests unnecessarily limits the types of projects members can submit, while the cap on total spending serves to keep total requests within budget.

Senate Appropriations have recently posted all their congressionally directed spending requests, and we will be analyzing them in a future post.

Zachary Courser is a visiting assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Kevin Kosar is a senior fellow at AEI.

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