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Congressional Earmarks Make a Big Return

Congressional earmarks are back.

The process by which politicians attach funding for a variety of projects in their home state or district returned with the $1.5 trillion federal government spending bill approved last month after an 11-year absence.

A New York Times analysis of the earmarks finds that members of the Senate and House of Representatives* included 4,962 earmarks totaling over $9 billion in the budget. Democrats had more earmark spending than Republicans—$5 billion to $3.4 billion. About $600 million in earmarks were bipartisan.

Retiring Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby is at the top of the list with $552 million committed to his state.

“It’s a question of who do you want to do earmarks,” Shelby told the Times. “You want the administration, the White House, to do them? Or do you want to do some yourself? They’re going to be done.”

The Times report says West Virginia Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito secured the 8th most earmark funding among Senators, at $241 million, while Democratic Senator Joe Manchin came in 20th at $165 million.

Capito embraced the earmarks, noting that some safeguards have been put in place to try to reduce wasteful spending. “After a decade away, following a lot of scrutiny—some of it warranted—the earmarks process returned with strict standards, disclosures and a very vigorous vetting process.”

Earmark spending is often derided as “pork,” but Capito said it is not wasteful to use federal dollars for needed improvements. “I’ve been to towns where their water system is falling apart, where broadband is lacking, and where a little funding can jumpstart some economic development,” Capito said. “I was so proud to support these projects.”

Members of Congress are required to make public their earmarks. Here is Capito’s list.

The Times reported that earmarks are also a mechanism to build consensus by “giving lawmakers across the political spectrum a personal interest in cutting deals to fund the government. Their absence, many lawmakers argued, only made the process more difficult, and their return this year appears to have helped grease the skids once again.”

The late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia made it his mission to bring federal dollars to his state.  He was so successful at it, especially while he was chairman of the appropriations committee, that critics called him the “King of Pork.”

Byrd responded to the criticism in his autobiography, Child of the Appalachian Coalfields:

“Why should we quibble over monies spent in our own country for the benefit of our own people, and cynically denounce such investments as ‘pork,’… while at the same time, we hand out millions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money  to other countries all over the globe without even a murmur?”

Byrd never lost an election. His ability to bring federal money to the state bolstered his standing among voters and benefited West Virginia. “I knew what I was doing when I directed federal funds to the mountain roads of Appalachia,” Byrd said.

Yes, he did. One politician’s pork is another’s valued project. Earmarks have returned as a fact of budgeting life in Congress. West Virginia may as well get its share.

*(Editor’s note: An early version incorrectly identified the House of Representatives as the House of Delegates.)

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