Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described whether U.S. Reps. Jake LaTurner and Rep. Ron Estes had used earmarks. Estes opposed the return to using earmarks, and a spokesman for LaTurner previously said he did not participate, but both have made multiple earmark requests to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
TOPEKA, Kansas — Eleven years ago, in a navy-and-wood-paneled Topeka TV studio, then U.S. Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt argued ahead of the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.
Looking directly into the camera, Moran told viewers he backed a moratorium on earmarks, but “Congressman Tiahrt led the effort to keep the earmarks process in place.”
“Well, when you listen to Congressman Moran, you’d think that I’m the only one in Washington or from Kansas that does earmarks,” Tiahrt said.
But, he said, everyone was using them.
“In fact, just last year,” Tiahrt said, “Moran supported and requested more than $250 million dollars in earmarks.”
Earmarks give Congress a tool to tie money from a spending bill to a specific project without going through all of the hoops of a normal funding request.
They’d become a favorite target for Republicans, glaring examples of the soft corruption of incumbents that wasted money on things like a bridge to nowwhere. And when the budget hawks of the Tea Party swept into the U.S. House, earmarks got swept away.
Tiahrt’s seat on the powerful appropriations committee and his desire to reform earmarks, rather than ditch them entirely, put a target on his back. He lost to Moran, who’s since become a senator.
This year, Democrats in Congress brought earmarks back, and they’ve invited Republicans to join in snagging money for special projects in their districts. Some Republicans are cashing in. But earmarks pose a double-edged sword for members of a party that has long stood for less spending and lower taxes. If they don’t play the earmark game, they leave money in Washington that could’ve come back to their districts — and won them votes.
In 2010, before Jerry Moran became a senator, gone were the days of touting the $142, 500 dollars he had secured to help pay for the McPherson Opera House, or the earmark requests he’d made to help a community college build a biotech center.
Shortly after the 2010 elections, the earmarks that helped build coalitions, pass big spending bills, and generally greased the wheels of Capitol Hill went away when House Speaker John Boehner banned them.
Giving up earmarks also meant surrendering up a way to control some of the Republican Party’s most fiscally conservative firebrands. There weren’t as many incentives like campaign donations or spending money for special projects to bring people to middle ground.
“What else do you have? Well, you could really go nuclear, if someone is a real thorn in your side, and remove them from a committee,” said Laura Blessing, who studied earmarks as a senior fellow at the Georgetown Government Affairs Institute. “It's just too strong of a tool. That's a sledgehammer.”
Then-U.S.Rep. Tim Huelskamp felt that hammer’s blow. He’d had a stormy relationship with Boehner. The speaker booted the congressman from western Kansas, and leader of the House Freedom Caucus, off the House Agriculture Committee. And for the first time in 150 years, Kansas no longer had a player sitting at the table when farm policy got hashed out.
When he ran for reelection in 2016, attack ads blasted the Republican for losing that Ag seat.
Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University, said Huelskamp effectively lost re-election when he lost his spot on the committee.
“When Roger Marshall challenged him in the primaries, he didn’t specifically run on earmarks. Earmarks are kind of politically touchy,” Smith said. But “he hammered Huelskamp on the idea (that) he is not the most effective of bringing home resources to this district. And earmarks are a part of that.”
Play or not
Yet when asked about earmarks recently, now-Sen. Marshall told Politico, “I’m gonna do everything I can to blow up the process so that no one does earmarks.”
Rep. Tracey Mann, a Republican from Salina, said in a statement, “I did not run for office so I could be the caretaker in the slow demise of our great nation” noting he was worried a return to earmarks in the House, “will once again spiral out of control and lead to more government spending.”
U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, a Wichita Republican, agreed. A statement from his office said the earmarks process “detracts from focusing on how to reduce spending."
Smith said if Republicans continue to pass on earmarks, that’s leaving federal money that could benefit their districts on the table.
“Are they going to bring over that conservative ideology argument, no more big government?” he said. “Or are they going to go back to the more traditional kind of Bob Dole type politics of talking small government, but still making sure that their districts get their fair share of the pie?”
U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids is the lone Kansas Democrat in Congress. She supports earmarks to help revamp a Kansas City highway and buy more electric busses for her district. Davids has requested millions of dollars in earmarks for a myriad of projects ranging from $43 million for a levee and flood wall system in Merriam to an imaging machine at the University of Kansas Cancer Center.
So far, the three Republicans who represent Kansas in the U.S. House have not requested many earmarks.
Estes opposed the return to using earmarks, and a spokesman for U.S. Rep. LaTurner previously said he did not participate in requests this year. But the two congressmen have made multiple requests to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. A spokesperson for LaTurner’s office said the congressman “stuck to his word” and didn’t request earmarks during the appropriations process this winter.
“(But) as Congress moved on to the transportation plan we had additional time and chose to submit office and state-vetted, approved, and sponsored transportation projects previously qualified to receive federal funds,” his office said in a statement. “Representative LaTurner is proud to utilize his Constitutionally derived authority to facilitate interstate commerce by seeking funds for critical infrastructure projects in eastern Kansas.”
The only member of the Kansas delegation who hasn’t decided on whether to participate yet is Moran.
Jim Slattery is a former Democratic member of Congress from Topeka. He said he thinks the Kansas delegation should request earmarks. If Congress doesn’t choose where to spend the money, he said, the president will. That cash could end up going to swing states that are more politically useful to the president. Not Kansas.
“Why,” he said, “would they not aggressively pursue the money that is being appropriated to build highways and build infrastructure to improve the internet and broadband capability in Kansas?”
Abigail Censky is the political reporter for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @AbigailCensky. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KMUW, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio - focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.