KJZZ is a service of Rio Salado College,
and Maricopa Community Colleges

Copyright © 2024 KJZZ/Rio Salado College/MCCCD
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Earmarks are back in Congress — and these Arizona Democrats are bringing home the bacon

Earmarks are back.

Once upon a political time, they were maligned as wasteful and cast aside by former Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake. But now, they’re just a great way to steer federal dollars to local projects — and the fruits are starting to appear across the country. 

Here in Arizona, Democratic lawmakers are bringing home the proverbial bacon — but not most Republicans, at least not yet. 

Arizona Daily Star columnist Tim Steller broke it all down for The Show. 

Conversation Highlights

What about Republican representatives in Arizona? You mentioned all Democrats there. Why are most of them not requesting these kinds of new earmarks for their districts yet?

TIM STELLER: Well, you can probably guess it, the one who responded to me and explained why was Rep. Paul Gosar’s spokesman. And yeah, he said that it was because of concern over spending that — until federal spending gets under control — Rep. Gosar is not going to be engaging in earmarking. And that is true, it appears, of the vast majority of the preceding members of Congress. There’s a couple of new ones, Juan Ciscomani and Eli Crane. Crane, I find no evidence of him requesting earmarks. Ciscomani, on the other hand, is participating, he just hasn’t gotten any funding yet because he’s too new.

This brings us to some of the history here of earmarks in Congress. It kind of started with Arizona senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, who kind of led the cause to get rid of earmarks maybe 10-15 years ago. Tell us why.

STELLER: Yeah, while many times there were good causes for funding these local projects, there were many examples also of wasteful spending. The most infamous is the bridge to nowhere, which was to get $220 million to go from the land to an island in Alaska where 50 people live. And there was the Ketchikan airport there. And that was such an outrage that eventually it was scratched the whole, the whole plan. They received ferry service instead. But also it was literally a way to bring in bribes or kickbacks. 

Randall Duke Cunningham, the representative from San Diego, also became infamous. He was convicted of taking $2.4 million worth of kickbacks. And the way he got it was by inserting earmarks into classified defense budgets where no one could really get a sense of what was going on, and then the people who received that funding gave him $2.4 million in money back.

Did we also get rid of federal funding for local projects?

STELLER:  What the experts on this tell me is that no, basically, instead of the elected representatives directing where the money goes, it was the same accounts were still being funded in the various appropriation budgets. But it was the executive branch, the administration that was deciding where these monies would go. And so, some of the people I talk to say, “Hey, it’s better this way because at least the representatives have local knowledge, they can vet these things, and then they can submit them to the appropriations committees for funding if you get that chance to be funded.”

What happened in recent years that brought earmarks back? Like why are we seeing these again?

STELLER: Well, they were eliminated in 2011 under the Tea Party Congress. They were brought back in 2021 under the new Democratic Congress. And the good news is that a lot of limitations were put on. Among other things, all the members of Congress who request earmarks have to post everything they request on their websites. Also, there’s significant transparency within the appropriations committee. There's no more hiding an earmark. There’s also limitations on how much you can ask for and on how much of the federal budget that earmarks can constitute — no more than one half of 1% in one chamber’s case, or no more than 1% in the other chamber’s case. So it’s much less exposed to the possibility of abuse and corruption as it stands now.

More stories from KJZZ

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.