Finally, something is happening in the Congress that may have bipartisan support that will actually help Vermont and the nation.
That is the return of earmarks, or items included in appropriations or authorization bills that provide federal money for specific projects in a state or congressional district.
These designations, such as money for buildings or for special programs in a particular state, were quietly tucked into massive spending bills with a minimum of transparency or oversight. Earmarks were abolished 10 years ago, as they were perceived to be a form of political corruption.
The effort to restore earmarks took a major step forward when on April 26, 2021, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, announced his intent to restore the practice of congressionally directed spending items, known as earmarks.
This is how the game worked: Senator X or Representative Y would get his/her special project funded without opposition. In return, the senator or representative would keep quiet when a colleague did the same thing for his/her state.
It was a time-honored closed system that gave the legislative branch an opportunity for specific “pork-barrel” projects for their home district. This ability to bring home the political bacon, funded by the taxpayers, usually was good for getting political support in return from the home-state electorate.
I saw how earmarks worked firsthand as the legislative assistant for former Vermont Sen. George Aiken many years ago, from 1969 to 1975. Aiken was a master of earmarks for Vermont. A drive around Vermont today will demonstrate some of the many Aiken projects, whether it be for maple sugar research, the restoration of the fishery on the White River, or special water projects for the Sleepers River in the Northeast Kingdom.
One of the more lasting projects is the rural water program in Addison County. In 1963, during a prolonged drought, Addison County dairy farmers and rural residents were running out of water. The Vermont National Guard was mobilized to haul water to dairy farmers and others as part of what became known as “Operation Water Wagon.”
Aiken wrote and got broad bipartisan support for a new federal program to provide grants and loans to develop rural water systems and sewer abatement projects. When Aiken secured about 90 Senate co-sponsors, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered his Budget Bureau to support the legislation, and end its opposition.
The restoration of a federally financed cold water fishery on the White River started in 1969 with a can of Vermont maple syrup. Aiken went to his longtime friend and colleague, Sen. Alan Bible, D-Nev., who was then the chair of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that held sway over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with a half- gallon can of Vermont’s finest. The sweet treat from Vermont helped to convince Bible that Vermont needed what became known as the White River National Fish Hatchery. This federal facility, located near Bethel, is to support in the Connecticut River the restoration of Atlantic salmon.
Aiken’s successor, Sen. Leahy, who’s serving his 46th year in the Senate, is now the unrivaled champion for getting federal money for Vermont. As current chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Leahy has demonstrated over and over again the importance of a Vermonter having a strong hand on the federal spigot.
Leahy and his team spent most of the week of May 3 in Vermont showcasing some of his efforts to boost Vermont projects. Will he seek another six-year Senate term in 2022? We won’t know until late this fall, when the senior senator announces his decision.
Leahy said that giving back to Congress some direct authority to direct federal spending will “allow members to better utilize their knowledge and experience to thoughtfully direct federal funds, and do so with transparency and accountability.”
Leahy has also continued the practice that every federal spending program must contain a small-state minimum that allows a small state to qualify for federal money.
This policy, through the efforts of Sens. Leahy and Bernie Sanders, as well as Rep. Peter Welch, has secured billions of federal largess for Vermonters — including state government, local hospitals, and struggling private-sector enterprises such as restaurants — as a result of federal programs to rebuild America due to the scourge of Covid. Without this federal help, Vermont would be an economic basket case.
Yet there is another reason earmarks are likely to be beneficial.
It may provide the needed grease to encourage some bipartisanship in a deeply divided Congress, where Republicans and Democrats are locked up in their armed camps.
A hint of the beneficial impact to restoring earmarks came when House Republicans voted 102-84 in March to bring them back.
This is a hopeful sign that there may be a thaw in the frozen partisan relationships that now exists on Capitol Hill, much to the lasting detriment of the American people.
Stephen C. Terry of Middlebury was a legislative assistant for U.S. Sen. George Aiken and later managing editor of the Rutland Herald. He is a founding board member of the Vermont Journalism Trust.