The Washington Post
A piece of the pie
Democrats and Republicans seek funds for local projects as they weigh Biden’s $2 trillion plan
As Congress weighs big infrastructure upgrades, lawmakers from both parties seek funding for local projects.
Rep. Donald Payne Jr. has asked the Biden administration to front the cash for a local railway project so many times that one of the president’s top advisers no longer greets him with just a hello.
“I know, Gateway, I know,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tells the congressman as soon as they start talking — or so Payne (D-N. J.) joked with reporters recently, stressing that he thinks he has secured the White House’s support for the initiative.
At a time when President Biden is seeking a massive expansion in the role of government — and major boosts in spending to boot — congressional Democrats and Republicans alike have unleashed a torrent of lobbying to try to steer new federal money to their states and districts. They may not agree on the size and scope of some of Biden’s most ambitious proposals, but lawmakers from both parties still share a fervent desire to seize on a rare political opportunity and bring some of the big bucks back home.
The jockeying began earlier this month, after Biden announced a roughly $2 trillion blueprint to upgrade the nation’s roads, bridges, waterways and ports. Days later, he followed his infrastructure plan with a $1.5 trillion budget for fiscal 2022 that included the biggest increases in domestic spending in more than a decade.
Together, the proposed investments reflect the president’s broader economic agenda as he labors to fulfill his 2020 campaign promises, create jobs and help the country “build back better.” But they also offer a window for members of Congress to secure the sort of aid that might help bolster their communities — and shore up their reelection prospects in the process.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-minn.) recently has written to the Biden administration in pursuit of federal funding for bridges in her state. (She even included a map.) Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D- Ohio) has urged lawmakers to support federal research funding of the hyperloop, an experimental underground tunnel technology backed by Elon Musk, hoping it might someday serve Toledo and the rest of her district. And Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-wash.) has asked Congress to approve “generous funding for bridges” under an expanded federal grant program that she said could help repair a cracked crossing in West Seattle.
Even Republicans who have been disinclined to support Biden’s economic agenda have pushed their pet projects at a moment when Democrats are vying to spend big: Rep. Harold Rogers has urged the committee to help improve service at an airport in southeastern Kentucky, and Rep. Larry Bucshon has asked lawmakers to complete a section of Interstate 69 that passes through his home state of Indiana. Both have sought to score the political wins as part of transportation legislation moving through the House.
The scramble for federal cash may prove to be a blessing and a curse for Biden and his congressional allies. Setting aside earmarks and other sums for specific communities could help the White House round up more votes for the infrastructure plan, perhaps even among Republicans who have questioned such spending in the past.
But federal funding is not unlimited, and lawmakers risk overestimating the public’s tolerance for this sort of wheeling and dealing. With no guarantees that Congress will adopt major infrastructure and budget legislation, Democrats and Republicans must strike a precarious balance if they hope to secure any aid at all.
“There has been a pent-up desire for infrastructure,” said Rep. John B. Larson (D- Conn.). “I do think, regardless of what your political stripe is, people will hold you accountable for delivering on what you said you would [do].”
For members of Congress, the jockeying reflects the high stakes they face politically and economically after years of false starts, particularly over infrastructure measures. Lawmakers from both parties generally have agreed about the need to improve roads and bridges, repair power plants and replace old pipes in their political backyards — yet they historically have had little to show for their support.
The same schisms have loomed over Biden in the weeks since he announced his roughly $2 trillion infrastructure package, which would couple investments in the country’s aging inner workings with new funding to tackle emerging challenges such as climate change. Republicans have opposed the president’s plan over its size and scope — and the means by which he proposes to pay for it, through corporate tax increases — putting the future of the blueprint in political doubt.
Biden has asked GOP lawmakers to offer a counterproposal by mid-may, although Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.VA.) signaled that party leaders could share their early outline as soon as this week. Meanwhile, congressional Democrats have forged ahead with their own work to translate the president’s ideas into legislation, with lawmakers led by Rep. Peter A. Defazio (D- Ore.) continuing drafting a bill to reauthorize the country’s transportation programs.
Congress must adopt the measure before an October deadline, positioning Defazio’s measure as a potential vehicle for broader, economywide infrastructure changes. House Democrats took a similar approach last year, ultimately transforming DeFazio’s legislative work into a robust $1.5 trillion package that cleared the chamber, only to falter later in the Senate.
Still, some lawmakers scrambling to get their local spending priorities included in the House’s bill. The frenzy was on display last week, when more than 70 lawmakers urged DeFazio and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which he chairs, to boost federal spending on projects that could benefit their states and districts.
Testifying by video at the hearing, Larson asked for federal aid to help a roughly $17 billion project to redesign local highways in Hartford, Conn., telling committee members at one point that it was as though Biden administration officials had the local “I-84/91 interchange in mind when they laid out their bold plan for infrastructure, the American Jobs Act.”
The wide array of asks corresponds with the sheer vastness of the country’s economic needs, lawmakers say. But there are also political benefits: With a personal stake in the underlying transportation legislation, more House lawmakers may be inclined to vote for its passage. Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-del.), the leader of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has commenced a similar process to collect funding requests for his panel’s transportation bill this year.
Still, there is no guarantee that lawmakers who receive extra funding and favor will reward congressional leaders with affirmative votes. And nothing stops members from taking credit later for legislation they did not exactly help pass.
The dynamic was on display earlier this year when a number of Republicans faced criticism after they appeared to take credit for some of the spending included as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, a coronavirus stimulus package they voted against unanimously. In March, for example, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-miss.) cheered the inclusion of $29 billion in restaurant relief in the bill — only to be criticized for it later because he did not back the final package.
Wicker defended his position at the time by pointing to the fact he had endorsed restaurant aid even before Biden put forward his package. “One good provision in a $1.9 trillion bill doesn’t mean I have to vote for the whole thing,” he said at the time.
Hoping to improve the prospects for future bipartisan dealmaking, Democratic leaders this year also have sought to revive earmarks, which allow lawmakers to direct federal sums toward pet projects generally back in their home states and districts. The move came in the weeks before Biden sketched out the early contours of a $1.5 trillion budget for fiscal 2022, including massive increases to federal health, science and educating spending.
Congress had banned earmarks for a decade, after years of complaints about the ethics of the practice and the effects on the government’s ever-growing deficit. But lawmakers have again come to embrace this spending, now called “community project funding,” as a way to induce compromise in a political environment where Democrats possess only a narrow majority.
House Democrats approved a regimented process for reviewing and approving earmarks in February, and Republicans in the chamber followed suit a month later. In a sign of early interest, lawmakers already have flooded the House’s budget keepers with “hundreds” of fresh inquiries about potential earmark requests, said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), the chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees transportation spending.
Senate Democrats also have expressed openness to earmarks, yet some of the chamber’s Republicans have been more recalcitrant about reviving the practice. They opted after a meeting Wednesday to leave in place a ban against the practice of seeking special set-asides for pet projects. But GOP rules are not binding, and some party lawmakers said they would seek earmarks soon anyway.
Some Democrats, however, say the future of earmarks as a bargaining tool hinges on their counterparts’ next steps.
“We need to do it together,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-mont.) insisted Tuesday.
“There has been a pent-up desire for infrastructure. I do think, regardless of what your political stripe is, people will hold you accountable for delivering on what you said you would [do].” Rep. John B. Larson (D-conn.)