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June 05, 2021

Bringing home the bacon

Credit: The Frederick News-Post, Dave Elliot

There was a time a decade ago when “bringing home the bacon” helped members of Congress bring in the votes they needed to win another term in office. A hundred thousand bucks to repair a bridge, a wad of dollars to renovate a Little League ballpark, a grant to build a new kennel for the animal shelter.

It was good politics because it produced good will and at the ballot box, good results.

They called it “pork barrel” spending. Lawmakers criticized their colleagues across the aisle for foolish or even corrupt spending, but they argued that their own lists of hometown pet projects were vital to the health and well-being of their constituents.

Reform-minded Republicans, particularly those in the Tea Party tribe, brought an end to this “earmark” legislation in 2011, citing their devotion and fidelity to fiscal fundamentals. Millions — nay, billions — of federal dollars were going down the drain, they complained. And they had GOP House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic President Barack Obama on their side.

It didn’t take long, however, just 10 years to be exact, for legislators to miss the pork chops, hams and roasts so much that they brought them back. It was a good way to address specific local needs, they said, and so earlier this year the lawmakers voted to bring the barrel back and fill it to the brim. More than 300 reps voted for it: All but one of the 219 Democrats and 102 of the 211 Republicans.

The Senate hasn’t made a formal decision, but Democrats there say the earmarks will be back sooner rather than later.

So how did Maryland’s eight congressmen land on the issue? Seven of them — the Democrats — filed for a laundry list of projects by the deadline a couple of weeks ago. Only Andy Harris, the conservative Republican on the Eastern Shore’s 1st District, passed them up.

In neighboring Virginia, the story was similar. The commonwealth’s 11 legislators split on party lines: The eight Democrats submitted proposals, the three Republicans maintained their purity and said “no.”

In West Virginia, where all three of the state’s representatives are Republicans, two did see smiling faces in their re-election crystal ball and decided to ask for funds. Only Alex Mooney walked away from the extra federal money.

His refusal could have interesting consequences. Once the darling of Maryland conservatives — in fact, he was chairman of the Free State’s Republican party — Mooney is now a three-term Mountain State true-blue Trump crusader. (There’s an interesting story behind his westward migration after his failed bid to represent Maryland’s 6th District, but we’ll save it for a later telling).

Mooney faces another in-party scramble in 2022 because West Virginia is losing one of its seats due to population decline. All three of its current lawmakers are Republicans, and all three say they’ll go for the remaining two chairs. So somebody is going to be left without a seat when the music stops.

Will Mooney pay a price for leaving federal dollars for his constituents laying on the table?

One of his upcoming foes, fellow conservative David McKinley of the 1st District, asked for a modest total of $5.8 million for health care, transportation projects, water infrastructure and economic development.

He explained his request by saying earmarks give lawmakers “the opportunity to take spending power away from unelected bureaucrats and put it back in the hands of elected representatives who understand the needs of the communities we represent.”

Mooney’s other in-party opponent, equally conservative Carol Miller, asked for an even more modest $2.7 million. “I will fight to ensure the people of West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District get their fair share” of funds for education, law enforcement, tourism and recreation and infrastructure, she said.

As far as I can determine, the 2nd District’s Mooney has given no explanation for his decision to leave the bacon behind. His staff released a brief statement saying only, “Our office will continue to advocate for West Virginia priorities in Congress during the regular appropriations process.” They did, however, offer to write “letters of support” for constituents trying to “navigate the federal government.” We’re assuming they’ll pay for the postage, too.

Mooney may contend that he is “standing on principle” for his fiscal stinginess, but it will be interesting to see if West Virginians are willing to give up their money for his convictions.

According to an analysis by The Washington Post, Maryland lawmakers’ total request amounts to $122 for each of its citizens. The Virginia delegation’s requests total $66 per capita. The two West Virginia legislators’ request total just $33 for each Mountain State resident overall, but zero dollars specifically for Mooney’s constituents.

When that’s compared to the record of the Maryland lawmaker on the north side of the Potomac River, there’s no comparison to be found, of course. The 6th District’s David Trone has asked for $209.3 million for 29 transportation projects alone. It’s the largest total proposed by any member of the Maryland delegation, and almost one-third of of their total transportation request.

We’ll see how the stark difference between the Trone strategy and the Mooney Doctrine plays out in next year’s Congressional elections. I suspect Trone may have a relatively easy time of it while across the river Mooney may again be battling to save his political career.

Mooney may stand firm against earmarks, saying they’re tawdry and tainted, but the fact of the matter is they benefit ordinary people when they’re above-board and fill a real need. Trone seems to know that, even if Mooney doesn’t. Mooney’s constituents — me, among them — are the losers.