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Twin State delegation hails earmarks’ Leahy-led return to Congress

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., looks on as Ellie Thibodeau, front left, and Sawyer Pringle, front right, show him their experiment of storing root vegetables through winter in a hole below the frost line in a corner of the Sharon Elementary School garden in Sharon, Vt., Thursday, May 6, 2021. Leahy recently introduced new legislation to expand Farm to School programs and visited the school to promote the programs. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote the charter of Farm to School programs and spoke of their benefits during a visit to Sharon Elementary School in Sharon, Vt., Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Sharon Elementary School newsletter editors Lorelai Putney, 9, middle, and Ripple Moore, 10, right, interview Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., during his visit to the school in Sharon, Vt., Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/8/2021 10:12:40 PM
Modified: 5/8/2021 10:12:37 PM

SHARON — Twin State lawmakers are touting the return of earmarks as a tool that will help Congress direct aid to local communities that may otherwise struggle to fund priorities.

Earmarks, or home-state projects inserted into spending bills, were banned a decade ago when Republicans took control of the House during the height of the Tea Party movement.

At the time, conservatives promised the measure would cut wasteful spending. But in reality, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said on the Senate floor last month, it forced lawmakers to fight for state-specific projects with their “hands tied.”

Leahy, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced a return to earmarking in arguing that the 2011 ban essentially stripped Congress of its spending power and turned it over to the executive branch. The House earlier this year also allowed members to submit earmark requests.

“We saw what happened with the last administration playing favorites among states,” Leahy said Thursday morning during a visit to Sharon Elementary School. “We want to stop that.”

His decision was applauded by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who said earmarks would help level the playing field among states.

The Granite State has been “shortchanged” by funding formulas on critical issues, she said in a statement last week that criticized federal spending models for opioid treatment, transportation and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Congressionally directed spending provides Granite State communities a fair shot at securing the federal resources necessary to advance local projects and address public needs,” said Shaheen, who also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The push to do away with earmarks was driven largely by conservatives’ desire to clean up Congress’ budgeting process and eliminate the trading of projects that many believe leads to higher spending, said Andrew Cline, president of the Concord-based free market think tank the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.

The thinking, he said was “that if you get rid of them, it will eliminate spending and make the budget process more honest and transparent.”

The campaign was aided on by some “truly awful earmarks” that were hard to justify when brought to light, Cline said.

Conservatives often point to $452 million for two bridges in Alaska as an example of the worst earmarks have to offer. One of those was the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere,” which would have connected the city of Ketchikan to Gravina Island, home to only a few dozen people.

While the resulting pushback galvanized Tea Party conservatives, anti-earmark sentiment has since shifted, and now, some argue that the elimination of earmarks was a mistake that contributed to political gridlock, Cline said.

“You’re essentially trading higher spending for a slightly less antagonistic Congress, a Congress that can actually get more bills passed,” he said, adding that the Bartlett Center hasn’t yet taken on a stance on the restoration of earmarks.

Linda Fowler, a retired Dartmouth College government professor, said she supports the return of earmarks because of the effect they could have on political discourse.

Earmarks, she said, were for decades important elements of spending negotiations, capable of enticing moderate lawmakers to vote across the aisle to help their district secure funding for a high-priority project.

“The important thing about earmarks is that money is fungible. You can split the difference, you can add 10%, you can do all of kinds of things” said Fowler, the former director of Dartmouth’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and Social Sciences.

“You can’t do that kind of horse-trading on abortion or school prayer,” she added.

Fowler added that earmarks are also important for the communities that receive the funding. A few hundred thousand dollars directed toward a municipality isn’t much for the federal government to absorb but can benefit local taxpayers greatly, she said.

“What’s small for the federal budget with its multimillion-dollar price tag is big money for New Hampshire,” she said.

Jim O’Brien, with the New Hampshire Nature Conservancy, said money from earmarks could be a “huge plus” to his nonprofit’s efforts.

A project the conservancy is working on — the acquisition of easements on more than 4,000 acres of wildlife habitat near the Mascoma River — was recently included on the list of earmarks that U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., requested for the federal government’s 2022 fiscal year.

Federal funding would deliver $5 million for the sale, much more than the $1.75 million allocated in 2019 to expanding the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, which aims to protect the Connecticut River watershed in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

“Across four states, that small amount of federal appropriation only goes so far and so there’s a lot of opportunities within the watershed that don’t get met,” O’Brien said.

He added that obtaining easements and buying land for the refuge has been a priority since it was founded in 1997, but getting proper funding and competing with other federal projects for grants has made that difficult.

Kuster, whose district largely encompasses the western half of the state, included four Upper Valley projects on her list of 10 community projects that each House member is allowed to submit this year.

They include $290,250 for construction of a sidewalk on Mechanic Street in Lebanon, $350,000 for a multi-use path in Hanover and $500,000 to help Lebanon-based Families Flourish Northeast, a new nonprofit that seeks to build a residential addiction treatment center for pregnant and parenting women and their children.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., also selected 10 Vermont projects to put forward, although none were in the Upper Valley.

His proposals include about $1.2 million for an addition at the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, $1.14 million for opiate treatment programs and $2 million for the redevelopment of a former manufacturing site in St. Albans.

In announcing the Senate’s reinstatement of earmarking, Leahy said senators wouldn’t be limited to 10 projects like their House counterparts.

They are, however, subject to similar rules — lawmakers and their families can’t have financial ties to the project and all requests must be listed publicly online.

He has also limited earmarks to 1% of the federal government’s roughly $1.6 trillion discretionary spending budget and said he intends to split half of that with Republicans.

Tim Camerato can be reached at or 603-727-3223.

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