Commentary: The Return of Congressional Earmarks Is Good for Rural Counties

The Revival of the Congressional earmarks could help rural counties tap into funding that was often out of reach, buried deep within a complicated agency grantmaking process.

by Gary MarxMarch 24, 2021

 

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. 

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THE BIDEN-HARRIS ADMINISTRATION MUST ADDRESS THE URBAN-RURAL/SMALL TOWN  DIVIDE

As a life-long Democrat who grew up in the deep South during Jim Crow, I could not be prouder of the election of the Biden-Harris ticket and the party’s goal of addressing income disparity and other social issues. At the same time, I have a deep concern that the Democratic Party will lack the political resolve to undertake the major initiatives necessary to heal the urban-rural/small town divide. It will not be enough for the new administration to rely on rhetoric about its compassion for Americans who feel resentment towards what they perceive as urban elites.  And It will take more than  increased spending on established programs like rural broadband.  Rather, it will take major initiatives designed to address the very real economic and social anxieties of rural and small-town Americans.

 

Like many who left small towns for an urban college, I have now lived most of my adult life in a metropolitan area.  My youth was spent in a Friday Night Lights culture comprised of sincere born-again Christians who were nevertheless proud supporters of George Wallace.  My upbringing is as alien to my current Ivy League educated friends as if I had immigrated from a foreign country.  But having lived in both worlds—one rural and the other urban--I appreciate the emotions of the voters in each sphere.  This understanding causes me to be pessimistic over the future of our democracy if we do not address the current divide and optimistic if we do.

 

I have been involved in Democratic Party politics, served on local and state agricultural commissions and consulted the USDA on rural development programs. In 2016, I tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Clinton Campaign to develop a rural economic development initiative focusing on traditional rural areas and small towns.  Following the election of President Trump, I again unsuccessfully tried to convince national organizations to propose major legislation in this area.

 

Even before last month’s election, the press was full of stories about the urban-rural gap—the world of Whole Foods versus Cracker Barrel-- and pundits such as James Carville were warning about the electoral impact of the cultural arrogance within parts of the Democratic Party.  Republicans were effective in characterizing Democrats as the party of the urban elite and, as noted by University of Virginia professor Dr. Guian McKee, the 2020 election showed an ever-deepening polarization between urban and rural/small town Americans. Some election analysis has shown that President Trump received approximately 55% of the vote in rural and small towns in 2020 nationwide and in some areas substantially higher.

 

During the Democratic presidential primaries, there were candidates such as Senators Klobuchar, Booker and Warren who issued detailed plans to help Americans living outside major urban areas. But, for whatever reason, addressing the needs of rural Americans was not a major issue during the televised portions of the Democratic 2020 Convention nor was it a central component of President Biden’s general election campaign.

 

As  books such as Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good suggest, it is not hyperbole to warn that the failure of the new administration to address the urban-rural divide may dangerously undermine democracy in the United States. The resentment among many rural Americans is palpable and the reasons behind this resentment are not unknown.  As many histories on fascism have shown, the threat to our future is real if this anger is not confronted.

 

There are four actions that the Biden-Harris Administration should undertake to address the urban-rural schism.  First, President-elect Biden should appoint a special envoy on rural and small-town America Issues comparable to that established for John Kerry on climate change.  This act alone would show the new administration’s commitment to addressing the concerns of Americans living outside urban centers.

 

Second, President-elect Biden should establish a bi-partisan commission (headed by the new special envoy) to ensure that rural and small-town Americans have the same opportunity to find jobs, own homes, send their children to good schools and have access to healthcare as the Democratic Party is advocating for its urban base. A major task of this new commission should be to work with stakeholders to enact a “Rural America New Deal” to help bring about such equal opportunities.

 

Third, the new administration needs to appreciate that what is acceptable and workable in an urban environment does not necessarily fit the realities and culture of rural communities. The new special envoy for rural America should be specifically tasked with working with state and local leaders in how best to avoid actions which may be perceived in rural communities as overreaching by the Federal government and in violation of cultural norms. Part of this effort should be the exploration of ways to ensure that Federal regulations are more accommodating to social values in rural communities.  

 

And finally, the bi-partisan commission suggested above should explore—in partnership with the private sector--the creation of a modern rural/small town version of the Works Progress Administration or a new Civilian Conservation Corps to help improve rural America’s infrastructure and standard of living.   Not only would such programs create economic opportunity in rural/small town areas but, by having urban and rural citizens work together, they may help breakdown the “us versus them” mentality which often exists between urban and rural Americans and possibly address the elitism which is the focus of Professor Sandel’s concern in The Tyranny of Merit.

 

Even if the Biden-Harris Administration were to view the urban-rural divide from a purely  parochial partisanship perspective, it should consider the agenda outlined above.  In Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide  political scientist Jonathan A. Rodd describes in detail why the Democratic Party cannot prevail at the local level (including Congressional Districts) without it becoming more appealing to rural voters.  Thus, from a solely electoral standpoint, it should be a priority for the Democratic Party to establish programs to demonstrate that it cares about voters outside its urban strongholds.

 

As commentators such as have Fareed Zakaria and Anne Applebaum have noted, the resentment of those individuals who feel alienated is not just based on a lack of economic opportunity but by a feeling of being marginalized by those in power. And while Washington cannot cure all the reasons why rural and small town Americans may feel resentment toward who they perceive as urban elites, at a minimum the Biden-Harris Administration can send a clear message that it hears their concerns and is committed to trying to address them.  The implementation of the measures suggested above—showing a commitment to rural and small-town America’s economic future and an appreciation for the cultural difference which exists between urban and rural/small town communities—would be a major step toward addressing the divide threatening our democracy.