Earmarks – member-requested funding initiatives – are returning to Congress after a decadelong ban, giving Maine nonprofits, municipalities, counties and state government a chance to ask their representatives for federal funding for specific projects.

Maine’s senior members in each chamber have influential positions on the appropriations committees, where the final decisions will be made on which of the projects submitted by members are funded. Rep. Chellie Pingree chairs the House subcommittee that controls the purse strings for the Environmental Protection Agency and most Interior Department agencies. Sen. Susan Collins is the ranking Republican on the Senate subcommittee that appropriates funds for the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

Clockwise from top left, Sen. Angus King, Sen. Susan Collins, Rep. Jared Golden and Rep. Chellie Pingree

“I think Collins will have an enormous impact, because it’s incumbent on the individual subcommittees to vet the projects and determine which ones to move forward, and as ranking member she would be consulted on those and might be tasked with corralling the Republicans,” says Mark B. Harkins, a former appropriations staffer and lobbyist who is now a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.

“As chair, Pingree has even more control,” Harkins adds. “She’ll set the rules for how things are done by the subcommittee. The chair makes the calls.”

Earmarks typically fund projects such as new bridges, water treatment plant improvements or harbor dredging. Congress banned earmarks – now rebranded “Community Funding Projects” – in 2011 after a series of corruption scandals, including members of Congress benefiting themselves. Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who is one of Congress’ richest members, secured millions in earmarks that benefited his commercial properties, including $800,000 to widen a thoroughfare in front of a medical plaza he owned. Another California Republican, Rep. Randy Cunningham, made a hand-drawn “bribe menu” outlining how big a federal contract he would procure in exchange for a given gift; he pleaded guilty, served a prison term, and was pardoned by President Donald Trump in January.

But in a rare display of bipartisan agreement, House Republicans voted March 17 to support the majority Democrats’ plan to revive earmarks with a series of safeguards, including excluding for-profit participants and requirements to show broad community support for any project.

The Senate hasn’t acted to reintroduce the practice, but it is widely expected to do so in the coming weeks. The chairman of that chamber’s Appropriations Committee, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, and the Republican vice chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, have signaled their support. So have both of Maine’s senators.

“I am open to the Senate having congressionally directed spending with safeguards in place,” Collins said via email. “Members of Congress are best attuned to the needs of their states and local communities. Regardless of which party is in control of the Presidency or the Congress, it seems unwise for Congress to surrender its authority to direct funding to unelected agency personnel.”

A spokesman for Sen. Angus King said the independent sees the value of reformed earmarks and is engaged in conversations with colleagues about how best to structure them.

The House process is already underway, and eligible parties can reach out to their representative’s staff – Pingree in the 1st District and Rep. Jared Golden in the 2nd – if they seek to propose a potential project for funding. They are required to submit their lists of potential projects – a maximum of 10 for each of them – to the Appropriations Committee by mid-April.

Pingree said she expects there will be a lot of compelling requests and choosing among them will be challenging. “I will look for projects that can do the greatest amount of good, but there are sometimes small communities that have an idea that would have a huge impact there but might get overlooked,” she said via telephone. “Not having seen any of the requests yet, though, it’s hard to know.”

Golden said his office was in the midst of outreach to constituents about potential projects. “I personally am going to be looking for proposals where I think one-time funding can support something that has a lasting effect,” he said in a phone interview. “So I am looking for community-supported projects that are gong to deliver a sustainable service or infrastructure.”

Under the House’s rules, applicants cannot seek multiyear funding, and their projects can’t personally benefit a member of Congress and his or her family. Proposals must be consistent with the mission of the agency from which the funding will come, and they can only come from certain agencies or budgetary line items – “accounts” in appropriations speak – that have been chosen to be part of the process for the inaugural program, which is for fiscal year 2022.

As subcommittee chairwoman, Pingree was able to choose which three “accounts” would be eligible from among those she presides over. She picked the U.S. Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry funding stream (for forest sector improvements), the EPA’s State and Tribal Assistance Grants program (which funds water and wastewater infrastructure projects), and the Land and Water Conservation Fund’s program for acquiring conservation lands.

All have a potential impact for Maine, Pingree noted: a historic opportunity to acquire additional recreational and conservation land; a chance to assist with the next stage of the state’s forest products industry; and an opportunity to help communities deal with climate change and sea level rise issues as they relate to water and sewage infrastructure.

“There is no question that I will be fair in how we evaluate the requests,” she said.

Pingree and Golden both said they supported the reformed earmarks as good policy, given that they require members to publicly declare which projects they submitted.

“I think it’s great that they’re coming back,” Pingree said. “The House has the power of the purse and we’re the ones who have to work trough these complex budgets, but in the end it’s the executive branch that has been making all the individual decisions and we felt we had ceded too much power.”

Golden, who has made fighting what he sees as a corrupt system a unifying theme of his congressional work, agreed, adding that it empowered rank-and-file members like himself in a system that has concentrated power in the hands of party leaders. “Getting power decentralized and turning it back to individual members is another way of getting power back toward their constituents,” he said.

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