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WASHINGTON — Tucked into the folds of the federal government’s latest $1.5 trillion spending bill lies more than $280 million to fund initiatives for Texans. Those projects range from expanding the San Antonio police department’s mental health unit and improving flood mitigation in coastal counties to planting a sustainable community garden at a high school and building a Gandhi museum in Houston.
The money comes from a federal budgeting practice known as earmarking, in which members of Congress request direct funding to their local districts. The practice was banned by Republicans after they won control of Congress during the 2010 midterm election, citing fiscal responsibility, but this past year, Democrats brought the practice back with some additional safeguards in place.
A number of Texas Republicans — including those who wield considerable influence in Congress — sat out of the process to bring home the proverbial pork.
That includes U.S. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth — the highest-ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, which plays a key role in evaluating and negotiating funding requests — and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who was previously the second highest-ranking Republican in the Senate. Both members previously pulled tens of millions of dollars in earmarks for Texas before the practice was initially banned.
In Texas, 19 out of Texas’ 38-member congressional delegation — all 13 Democrats and six Republicans — submitted requests and received funding.
While the majority of Texas Republicans protested the practice, the two members who were most successful at bringing home the bacon for their constituents are Republicans — U.S. Reps. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio and Dan Crenshaw of Houston.
Despite having the second-largest population of any state and around 9% of the country’s people, Texas received less earmark funding than smaller states like South Carolina and Alabama — states where Republican senators on the chamber’s appropriations committee helped amass $378 million and $542 million, respectively.
Another GOP-led state that beat out Texas in earmark funding is Missouri with $311 million. Of the approximately $9.7 billion in earmarked funds, Texas will receive around 3%.
Texas is taking in the 7th highest share of earmarks out of any state. But per capita, Texas’ share ranked 42nd among all the states and the District of Columbia.
Return of earmarks
Before they were banned, members of both parties used earmarks extensively to address constituent needs like fixing broken roads and funding community programs. They also double as fundraising fodder, as politicians who score big wins can tout them in campaigns.
Earmarks do not add to the federal budget’s expenses, but instead provide specific instruction to federal agencies on how to spend their allocated dollars. Without them, more authority is given to the executive branch and agencies to decide how to spend their funds.
However, earmarks have been associated with government abuse. For example, former U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a California Republican, was sentenced to federal prison in 2006 for funneling money to causes whose beneficiaries donated to him.
They’ve also been linked to wasteful spending. One oft-cited instance was the so-called “bridge to nowhere,” a project in sparsely populated rural Alaska that had hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks directed to its construction in the 2000s. The bridge was never built.
When Democrats took control of Congress after the 2020 election, party leadership brought back the practice in 2021 with additional regulations, including requirements meant to clean up their bad reputation: posting funding requests online and affirming officials receive no financial benefit from a given project.
One argument in favor of earmarks is that it incentivizes bipartisan collaboration in the budget process, especially at a time when key votes in Congress are breaking across party lines. Rather than simply voting against the party in power, earmarks give lawmakers in the minority party some skin in the game.
Granger sits out
The powerful appropriations committees in both the House and Senate are key in determining how the federal government spends its money. Four Texans sit on the House Appropriations Committee: Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Republican U.S. Reps. John Carter of Round Rock, Gonzales and Granger. All of them except Granger brought earmarked funds back to Texas.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate at the time,” Granger told The Texas Tribune when asked why she didn’t submit funding requests in the passed budget. “I want to make sure if they come back, they come back in a way that’s acceptable to everyone.”
Granger did not comment on what specific restrictions she would want to see on the process. If Republicans win a House majority in the November midterm elections, Granger is poised to become the next chair of the House Appropriations Committee, where she would be a key voice in determining the future of the process.
While earmarks are one visible way in which members of Congress can get wins for their district, members — especially those on the appropriations committees — can negotiate project funding in other legislation. For example, Granger touted this year more than $400 million for Panther Island, a long-anticipated flood control project for the Trinity River in Fort Worth. That money comes from a bill last fall that she voted against.
Granger, who has represented the district since 1997, earmarked $28.4 million in funds, oftentimes with other members of Congress, for the river project before the practice ended in 2010. She has caught heat because her son is the executive director of the authority in charge of Panther Island’s development. Her daughter-in-law has also served on the project’s management team.
The Republicans who played ball
The Republicans who played ball with earmarks took home proportionally more than their Democratic colleagues. The six of them amassed nearly $120 million, while all 13 Texas Democrats together brought in a little more than $176 million.
“What we did in our district was we had our local elected officials — including mayor, state reps and state senators — come together,” Van Duyne told the Tribune. “They’re the group that looked over what the requests were and they gave their recommendations.”
Van Duyne said this approach mitigates some of the concerns expressed about earmarks by taking the power from members of Congress and putting it in the local district — “where it should be.”
The Irving congresswoman took home three funding requests of $5 million each — two of the three in partnership with other North Texas representatives — and all are directed toward various improvements for the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
Nehls took home more than $6 million for road expansions and education programs. He declined comment for this story.
Gonzales, a junior member of the House Appropriations Committee, brought in the most of any Texan with nearly $39 million. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, secured the most of any Democrat at $24.4 million.
The funding Gonzales directed toward his district includes $32 million to Joint Base San Antonio, a military facility, for a child development center and a vehicle maintenance shop.
The first-term San Antonio congressman said in a statement to the Tribune that if Congress doesn’t exercise its authority to control spending using earmarks — which are now officially called community project funding — presidential administrations would do it and leave small communities vulnerable.
“When community project funding returned to the appropriations process last year for the first time in over a decade, we fought hard to ensure that a diverse set of projects received federal funds,” Gonzales said. “I realize the process is opposed by some members, however if federal funds are going to be spent, I will always advocate for those dollars to come home to our district.”
Many of the Houston-area representatives took home money to address flood infrastructure and storm drainage in their districts — a continual concern for the region in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Crenshaw received the second most earmarked funds out of any Texan, securing more than $26 million in funding for his district — all of which is directed toward various flood control projects.
“I have a very strict process for that, and it has to be flood mitigation for the district,” Crenshaw told the Tribune about his approach to earmarks.
The Republicans who sat out
Other Republicans in the delegation — especially the most conservative ones — pushed back against the process, even with its new reporting requirements, and said further conversations about the funding were necessary.
“I am very concerned about earmarks and the corrupting influence of them and how they have been in Congress,” U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud, a Republican from Victoria serving his second term in the House, told the Tribune when asked about Texas getting disproportionately less money than some states. “Yes, we want to represent our districts well, we want Texas to prosper. But we are at an existential cliff when it comes to monetary policy.”
Cloud is a member of the Freedom Caucus, a group of the most conservative House Republicans that includes five Texans who did not request or receive earmark funding. The caucus came out in strong opposition to earmark funding last year as the Republican caucus at large decided how to navigate their return.
Both of Texas’ senators, Cornyn and Ted Cruz, signed a letter last year that affirmed a commitment to the ban on earmarks, which they called an “inherently wasteful spending practice that is prone to serious abuse.”
Cornyn told reporters in a press call that he was open to a conversation about earmarks, but was not going to vote for a “corrupt” process without reform.
“I think it just has a very unseemly appearance of, frankly, corruption. That’s not always the case, but part of what I would look for is some reform of the earmark process,” said Cornyn, who sponsored or cosponsored more than $420 million in earmarks from fiscal years 2008 to 2010. “I’ve found in my experience, we’ve been able to establish programs and seek appropriations for things that help Texas in a variety of ways, and it’s not really necessary to request an earmark in order to get that done.”
Beyond Cornyn and Granger, other long-serving Republicans who did not request funding this round but previously did before the practice was banned in 2010 are U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul of Austin, Michael Burgess of Lewisville, Kevin Brady of The Woodlands and Louie Gohmert of Tyler, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that tracks the flow of money in politics. Over the years, many of them have cited the argument that earmarks lead to shady and unnecessary government spending.
Some Texas Democrats seemed wary of using the term “earmarks” to label the funding practice, likely a nod to the negative connotations the practice had in years past.
“We don’t have earmarks,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who secured more than $10 million for health care, education and public safety initiatives. “Our focus is about really helping those community-based organizations that truly need that little lift to get their programs going to better serve.”
“They’re not called earmarks anymore, obviously,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from El Paso who took home $11.6 million for initiatives such as police body cameras, broadband expansion and hospital equipment, told the Tribune. “They’re community-funded projects. They’ve been reformed so that they’re more transparent, so that there’s more accountability and rules around them.”
U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, D-Houston, amassed $13.7 million that will go toward flood mitigation, drinking water infrastructure and resources and equipment for the Houston Fire Department.
“I’m here to advocate for my constituents and to make sure that we get the funding that we need in our community,” said Fletcher, who was elected to House in 2018 and went through the earmarking process for the first time. “I’m really excited about the projects and things that we’re going to be able to make happen.”
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/15/texas-earmarks-budget-congress/.
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