The Washington Post

A piece of the pie

Democrats and Republican­s seek funds for local projects as they weigh Biden’s $2 trillion plan

- BY TONY ROMM tony.romm@washpost.com

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.)

 ?? MARK LENNIHAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? A painter works under New York’s Manhattan Bridge this month. President Biden’s plan to upgrade the nation’s roads, bridges, waterways and ports has prompted a torrent of lawmakers of both parties trying to steer federal money to their states and districts.
MARK LENNIHAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS A painter works under New York’s Manhattan Bridge this month. President Biden’s plan to upgrade the nation’s roads, bridges, waterways and ports has prompted a torrent of lawmakers of both parties trying to steer federal money to their states and districts.

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