The omnibus budget bill Congress just approved will fund dozens of infrastructure projects or services in Iowa during the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30, 2023.
But none of those earmarks (totaling tens of millions of dollars) will benefit communities or facilities in the fourth Congressional district. That's because for the second year in a row, U.S. Representative Randy Feenstra declined to ask for specific projects to be included in the federal budget.
HOW THE NEW EARMARK PROCESS WORKS
Nearly two-thirds of federal spending supports mandatory programs (sometimes called entitlements), such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans' benefits, and farm subsidies. Congress doesn't have to approve funding for those programs annually, and qualifying citizens across the country have access to the benefits.
About 30 percent of federal spending supports "discretionary" programs, for which funding must be approved each year. The defense budget accounts for nearly half of all discretionary spending.
This post focuses on the "Community Project Funding" that became available when House Democrats brought earmarks back to the appropriations process in 2021. Republicans had banned the practice when they gained control of the House in 2011.
The House Appropriations Committee implemented several reforms last year "to guarantee that Community Project Funding is dedicated to genuine need and not subject to abuse." To address concerns about corruption, earmarks were restricted to government or nonprofit entities, and House members were required to certify that neither they nor any immediate family member had any financial interest in the project.
To address concerns about waste, earmarks could total at most 1 percent of federal discretionary spending.
To address concerns about transparency, members were "required to post every Community Project Funding request on their official House website" when they submitted the requests to the Appropriations Committee.
The last two omnibus budget bills included funding for thousands of community projects. President Joe Biden signed the fiscal year 2022 omnibus legislation into law in March and will sign the latest omnibus (funding the federal government through September 2023) sometime this week, when the legislation that just cleared the Senate and House reaches his desk.
IOWANS APPROACHED EARMARKS DIFFERENTLY
Many House members from both parties took up the Appropriations Committee's invitation to request funds for up to ten community projects for fiscal year 2022 and up to fifteen projects for fiscal year 2023. Democratic Representative Cindy Axne (IA-03) and Republicans Ashley Hinson (IA-01) and Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-02) sought earmarked funding for infrastructure or public services in the counties they represent.
Axne voted for the 2021 infrastructure bill as well as for the omnibus budget bills that passed in March and last week. In each case, the lone Democrat in Iowa's delegation released statements highlighting good provisions and the projects for which she successfully sought funding.
Miller-Meeks and Hinson voted against the infrastructure bill and the omnibus for FY2023. But they voted for the FY2022 omnibus in March and noted in their press releases which of their district's community projects were funded.
Early this year, Hinson publicly bragged about "game-changing" investments that stemmed from the infrastructure bill. She did it again last week, denouncing the "wasteful spending" in the 2023 omnibus while touting her success in "securing investments for Iowa."
When Hinson gained national media attention in January for taking credit for lock and dam funding for the Upper Mississippi River, she defended her actions, telling some Iowa reporters,
“I support and I’ve advocated for targeted infrastructure investments like this one,” Hinson says. “The infrastructure package in the House wasn’t targeted and it was tied to trillions of dollars in additional spending. This is where we are, it passed, and if there’s federal money up for grabs, I’m absolutely going to fight as hard as I can to make sure Iowa’s tax dollars are reinvested back home.” [...]
“If the federal government is going to spend money, it’s been allocated, I want it to be spent in Iowa, not elsewhere,” Hinson says. “So, if there’s federal money on the table, do you think I’m going to sit back and let that go to states like California and New York? Hell, no. I’m going to make sure as much of it comes back to Iowa as possible and that’s exactly what I did with my colleagues.”
Feenstra chose a different path. Both years he has served in Congress, he submitted no funding requests to the House Appropriations Committee. A member of his staff told Shane Vander Hart of The Iowa Torch in 2021,
“While he took the time to do his due diligence before making a final decision, no projects were requested,” a Feenstra spokesperson said in an email sent to The Iowa Torch. “The final decision was made when it became clear that the Biden-Harris administration was set to propose an unprecedented $6 trillion in spending in total, which will only worsen the already sad state of America’s fiscal health. Congressman Feenstra believes it is time for Congress to restore fiscal stability and balance our budget so that we can begin making sound investments in America’s future.”
Feenstra voted against the non-defense portion of the FY2022 omnibus, containing most of the domestic discretionary spending as well as most earmarks. He was also a no on the bipartisan infrastructure bill and this week's omnibus, which he denounced as a "monstrosity" full of "reckless spending and government waste."
Feenstra's stance against what he calls "Washington's broken budget process" is more ideologically consistent than that of Hinson and Miller-Meeks. They too have railed against the Biden administration's supposedly excessive spending, while quietly seeking millions of dollars in earmarks for their own districts.
Feenstra can afford to stand on principle because voters in IA-04 favor Republicans by margins of 20-plus points. The eastern Iowa U.S. House districts where Hinson and Miller-Meeks prevailed in 2020 and this year are GOP-leaning but by no means unwinnable for Democrats. The good press that comes from bringing home the bacon is more valuable to an incumbent in a competitive district than to one representing a safe seat.
A review of earmarked projects funded in Iowa shows what kind of opportunities Feenstra denied his constituents by opting out of this process.
IOWA EARMARKS THE OUTGOING CONGRESS APPROVED
Bleeding Heartland compared the list of final funded projects in the last two omnibus bills to the requests Axne, Hinson, and Miller-Meeks submitted for fiscal years 2022 and 2023.
Richard Bender, who oversaw earmarking for Senator Tom Harkin, told Bleeding Heartland that some of the earmarked projects might have been paid for anyway with federal formula funds, or they might have been scheduled for several years later. (The 2021 infrastructure bill will provide billions of dollars to Iowa for roads, airports, water facilities, broadband, and so on.) Including line items in the omnibus ensures the funding will be available during the current fiscal year.
Regarding Feenstra's approach, Bender added, "The reality is that the total sum to be allocated to earmarks is decided first and then the specific projects are chosen among the requests made. So, if no requests are made for a district, clearly the area loses its chance for its share."
In addition, some of the projects supported in the omnibus budget might never have received federal funding without a member of Congress making the request. "While most earmarks go to the types of projects regularly funded by the federal government like roads, water projects, and low income housing, some earmarks over the years have created very creative programs," Bender said.
I've grouped the funded projects (totaling more than $114 million over two years) by subject area.
Roads and bridges: $41.9 million
$7 million for the Alburnett Road Extension in Marion (Linn County)—Hinson request for FY2023
$5 million to reconstruct and expand a portion of Broadway Avenue in Des Moines—Axne had requested $7 million for FY2023
$4 million for the Summer Street Corridor Rehabilitation in Burlington—Miller-Meeks request for FY2023
$4 million for the Route V5G pavement improvement in Keokuk County—Miller-Meeks request for FY2023
$4 million for rural road construction in West Union (Fayette County)—Hinson had requested $7 million for FY2023, citing an innovative plan to use material sourced from soybean oil instead of petroleum polymers
$2.5 million for the Forevergreen Road Extension in Coralville—Miller-Meeks request for FY2023
$2 million to replace a bridge on 250th Street between Evergreen Avenue and G Avenue in Montgomery County—Axne request for 2023
$2 million for pavement rehabilitation project along the County Road G28 corridor in Marion County—Miller-Meeks request for FY2023
$2 million for the reconstruction of Iowa Highway 38 in Tipton (Cedar County)—Miller-Meeks had requested $1 million for FY2022
$1,919,082 to reconstruct roads, parking areas, alleys, water quality features, traffic signage, and sidewalks in downtown Perry (Dallas County)—Axne request for FY2023
$1.6 million to replace the bridge on County Highway R57 over the North River in Warren County—Axne request for FY2022
$1.6 million for Middle Road Reconstruction in Bettendorf—Miller-Meeks request for FY2023
$1.14 million for Red Rock Prairie Trail in Jasper County—Miller-Meeks request for FY2023
$1 million to help build the Raccoon River East Pedestrian Bridge connecting Raccoon River Park in West Des Moines to Walnut Woods State Park—Axne request for FY2022
$850,000 for a study planning a new roadway in Oskaloosa and Mahaska County—Miller-Meeks request for FY2022
$750,000 for surface transportation improvements in downtown Mount Ayr (Ringgold County)—Axne had requested $1.8 million for FY2023
$600,000 for a Scott County bridge replacement on a farm-to-market road near Pleasant Valley—Miller-Meeks request for FY2022
Water infrastructure: $56.9 million total ($34.3 million for Iowa area projects)
$45.1 million for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Construction Upper Mississippi River-Illinois WW System project—Miller-Meeks requested $22.5 million for FY2022 for the Corps' Rock Island District
$3.5 million for the Maquoketa Wastewater Plant—Hinson request for FY2023
$2.5 million for the Blake’s Branch sewer project in Ottumwa—Miller-Meeks request for FY2022
$1.7 million for the City of Burlington for a sewer separation project—Miller-Meeks request for FY2022
$1 million for the city of Dubuque's Granger Creek Lift Station, to improve the sanitary sewer systems—Hinson request for FY2023
$1 million to extend and connect sewer systems in the city of Johnston—Axne request for FY2022
$1 million to retrofit green stormwater infrastructure practices in Pacific Junction (Mills County)—Axne request for FY2023 (worth noting: Axne submitted the request even though Mills County is no longer part of IA-03 following redistricting)
$600,000 to repair and upgrade components at the Creston City Waterworks (Union County)—Axne request for FY2022
$500,000 for stormwater improvements at Greenbelt Landing Park in Clive—Axne request for FY2023
Airports: nearly $17.3 million
$7 million to design a new passenger terminal for the Des Moines International Airport—Axne request for FY2023
$7 million for the Eastern Iowa Airport Taxiway Expansion Project—Hinson request for FY2023
$3,267,000 to repair glycol storage tanks at the Des Moines International Airport, supporting a planned expansion of de-icing capabilities—Axne request for FY2022
Health and human services: $5.9 million
$3 million for the Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine to build a new health clinic—Miller-Meeks had requested $4 million for FY2023
$1,322,415 to expand the Meals on Wheels Program in Des Moines run by Wesley Community Services—Axne request for FY2023
$750,000 for the Iowa Homeless Youth Center in Des Moines for a program supporting foster youth—Axne request for FY2023
$750,000 to help expand the Food Bank of Iowa’s warehouse in Des Moines—Axne request for FY2023
$100,000 to purchase dental equipment to improve low-income dental services offered by Primary Health Care, Inc. in Des Moines—Axne request for FY2022
Flood mitigation: $4 million
$1.7 million for the 5th Avenue gatewell and flood pumps in Cedar Rapids—Hinson had requested $1.725 million for FY2023
$1.27 million for flood mitigation Flood Mitigation at River Drive and Marquette Street in Davenport—Miller-Meeks had requested $1.5 million for FY2023
$1 million for the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa, for Advanced Hydrologic Monitoring, Assessment, and Flood Forecasting for Eastern Iowa (joint request from Hinson and Miller-Meeks for FY2023)
Education: $3.1 million
$2 million for Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa for college and career transition counselors—Miller-Meeks had requested $5 million for FY2022
$375,000 for Northeast Iowa Community College's National Education Center for Agricultural Safety Equipment upgrades in Peosta (Dubuque County)—Hinson requested $372,000 for FY2023
$360,000 for the Kirkwood Community College Aviation Maintenance Technician Program—Hinson request for FY2023
$339,000 to expand the Des Moines Area Community College Commercial Driver’s License Training Program—Axne request for FY2023
Child care: $2.7 million
$1 million to expand the Stanton Child Resource Center in Stanton (Montgomery County)—Axne request for FY2022
$1 million to construct a child development center in Griswold (Cass County)—Axne request for FY2023
$725,336 for Ringgold Child Care Center in Mount Ayr (Ringgold County)—Axne request for FY2022
Housing: nearly $2.4 million
$1 million for Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity’s Targeted Neighborhood Revitalization, covering the Church Row and Walnut Neighborhoods in Waterloo—Hinson request for FY2023
$904,336 to help build more than 75 affordable housing units in Council Bluffs at the South End Housing Development Program—Axne request for FY2022
$360,000 to expand affordable housing options through Neighborhood Finance Corporation’s Workforce Housing in Polk County—Axne request for FY2023
Emergency services: $1 million
$500,000 for the town of Gilbertville (Black Hawk County) to build a new emergency services building for fire and rescue services—Hinson request for FY2023
$301,000 to buy new radios for the Windsor Heights Police and Fire Departments—Axne request for FY2023
$208,000 for the Buchanan County Emergency Operations Center in Independence—Hinson had requested $245,000 for this purpose for FY2023
Economic development: $780,000
$779,025 to the Adams County Economic Development Corporation for entrepreneurial and incubator center in Corning—Axne request for FY2023
$750,000 to Iowa City Transit Operations and Maintenance Facility—Miller-Meeks request for FY2022
$330,200 to build a fiber network for the small community of Orchard (Mitchell County), to be administered by Osage Municipal Utilities—Hinson request for FY2023
Top photo of Representative Randy Feenstra posted on his political Facebook page October 28.