Do you ever wonder why one county got a new federal building and an equally deserving adjoining county in a different state did not? Or why a bridge was being built in one part of a state while residents in a different part of the state had to drive miles to find a crossing?
Up until 2011, one possible answer to these questions, and countless more, was that a Member of Congress representing the districts involved obtained an earmark for the projects in question.
At its simplest, an earmark is a provision included in discretionary spending bills that directs funds to a specific recipient and in so doing it circumvents a competitive funds allocation process typically done through the agency grantmaking process.
More formally, it is defined as “a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Member… or Senator providing, authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or Congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula driven or competitive award process.” (Clause 9 of House rule XXI).
Earmarks have been a part of the federal budgetary process since the earliest years of the nation. But after several highly publicized scandals in the early 2000s, Congress adopted an absolute ban on the practice following the 2010 elections.
Now the House Committee on Appropriations of the current Congress has proposed to revive earmarks in a limited manner under the name of “Community Project Funding (CPF)”– allowing up to one percent of total discretionary spending to be earmarked. And while some senators have responded by introducing legislation to again prohibit earmarks, it is highly unlikely that such an effort will be successful.
The purpose of this article is not to argue the merits of earmarks as a matter of public policy. Rather, it is to make clear that the revival of earmarks provides rural counties with a potential source of funding that was often unavailable as a practical matter through agency grantmaking.
As noted by John Hudak in his book Presidential Pork, White House Influence over the Distribution of Federal Grants the ban on Congressional earmarking did not make earmarks go away, it simply transferred that power from the legislative branch to administrative agencies. And there is a number of reasons to believe that rural counties are often at a competitive disadvantage in that arena and would benefit from a return to earmarked funding.
First, many rural communities do not know when grants are available or for what purposes. Second, even if they do, many rural communities do not have the technical knowledge, experience, or resources in preparing grant applications. As anyone who has ever read the federal register can attest, the process can be complex and involve obstacles like in-kind matching requirements. Third, program managers in agencies with a limited amount of funds may very well be less likely to make grants to entities with which they have little knowledge or experience as is often the case with rural counties. Fourth, often the specific needs of a particular rural community fall outside the boundaries of a generalized grant program or specific funding opportunity announcement.
Therefore, whatever one’s policy views on whether earmarks should be restarted or not, their return is likely a strong positive for rural counties. But only those communities that reach out to their Members of Congress with high-quality, needed projects can take advantage of their revival.
There are several important considerations for rural counties to keep in mind in approaching their Members of Congress with a request for federal funding for community projects. For example, under the Committee on Appropriation’s Guidelines for CPF requests, Members are limited to no more than 10 requests (excluding programmatic and language requests). More importantly, Members are required to prioritize their requests when they are submitted for consideration. Therefore, since there may be a few rural counties within a Congressional District, where possible such counties (or other eligible entities seeking funding) should try to work together to maximize the likelihood that their requests will get the highest priorities. When that is not possible, a rural county must be prepared to demonstrate why its requests deserve a higher priority than other entities within the Congressional District who are also competing for their Representative’s support.
In addition, it is crucial that rural counties (like all others seeking an earmark) demonstrate the utmost community engagement and support in presenting their request to their Member of Congress.
According to the House Committee on Appropriations Guidelines, only projects with demonstrated community support will be considered. Examples of such support include but are not limited to: (1) letters from elected community leaders (e.g., county commissioners, mayors, or other officials); (2) press articles highlighting the need for the requested CPF; (3) support from newspaper editorial boards; (4) projects listed on State intended use plans, community development plans, or other publicly available planning documents; and (5) resolutions passed by county councils or boards.
Rural counties should not delay in presenting to their Members of Congress their request for CPF support since the appropriations process is already underway and Representatives will soon be facing deadlines for submitting their earmark requests.
In sum, the revival of earmarks is a benefit to rural counties, and they should immediately reach out to their Members of Congress to start the process of seeking Community Project Funding.
Gary Marx has practiced law in Washington D.C. for four decades. He is the managing partner of Marx and Lieberman, PLLC and is corporate counsel at the governmental affairs firm of Van Scoyoc Associates, Inc.