That path has been cleared for the return of earmarks for youth-serving organizations
It has received very little attention, even in the Beltway news sources, but Congress has given itself the power to issue earmarks again for the fiscal 2022 budget year. Often referred to pejoratively as pork, these are member-directed funds carved out of a federal discretionary appropriation to go to particular companies or organizations for specific projects.
In the world of youth and family services, this generally means that the process of an open competition for grants, conducted by the executive branch, is replaced by the requests of Congress.
The argument against the earmarking process is that, in the past at least, it has tilted in the favor of the majority party and more specifically to the whims and interests of powerful legislators. And assuming an open competition held by a federal agency was done on the up and up, that process certainly offers a more neutral playing field for hopeful grantees. With earmarking back, expect that organizations that can afford a lobbyist will have a real upper hand.
But veteran lawmakers sneer at the notion that federal bureaucrats know best when it comes to steering local projects, and that is more or less the kind of money that gets earmarked: discretionary grants for direct services.
“I have always believed that members of Congress have a better understanding of their communities than Washington bureaucrats,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), in a statement to Punchbowl News, which has done the most reporting on the return of earmarks through its daily newsletter. “We are in good faith negotiations with the House and my Senate colleagues to bring back Congressionally directed spending in a transparent and responsible way, and those discussions are ongoing.”
For years, the practice of earmarking dominated discretionary spending on youth. Youth Services Insider used to track youth-related earmarks in the budget each year, beginning in 2001, when we found about 440 earmarks totaling $420 million. The most we ever found came 2005, when Congress directed just over $700 million to nearly 1,400 projects.
The next year, a tighter-than-expected budget forced earmarks out of the biggest youth spending bill: the one for the departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Labor. And in 2007, due to the Jack Abramoff scandal, earmarks went on hiatus entirely.
After that, the pork trough returned, but only for a few years. The Tea Party forced GOP leadership to back a ban on earmarks, and former President Barack Obama also voiced a desire to reform and restrict the process. He said in his first year in office that he wouldn’t sign appropriations bills with earmarks; Congress called his bluff, and he caved.
By fiscal 2011, they were gone from the appropriations process. Did champions of open competition win the day? Not exactly. The absence of a personal benefit for members (who often held news conferences to announce earmark projects they secured), combined with the sharp budget standoffs between Obama and Republican leadership, made the formerly earmarked pots of money sitting ducks when it came time to shed federal spending in the wake of the Great Recession.
So with earmarks back in fashion, could we see a surge in the appropriations for some youth-related spending? It is possible. A big caveat in general here, though: The issuance of earmarks is contingent on an actual appropriations process that ends in spending deals, either on individual portions of the federal budget or more often than not these days, an omnibus package. If fiscal 2022 spending is done through continuing resolutions, with no actual agreements reached on yearly appropriations, there will be no pork to dole out.
If they are back, look for earmark-heavy appropriations in the following sections of youth spending:
- The mentoring program at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
- The Byrne Justice Assistance Grants program, which mostly funds local law enforcement activities.
- Discretionary funds from the Family and Youth Services Bureau, which oversees funding for runaway and homeless youth services as well as sexual health and teen pregnancy prevention.
- The Fund for the Improvement at the Department of Education, which has changed names somewhat it appears, which used to be chock-full of earmarks for after school programs and other extracurriculars.
- The Department of Labor’s Training and Employment Services program.
The plans for a more transparent earmark process this time around were built with the expectation that all members would have access and opportunity to seek grants. That said, there is undoubtedly power that comes to the leaders on both House and Senate Appropriations committees with the issuance of Congress-directed spending.
The ultimate gatekeepers on earmarks will be House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), along with ranking minority member Kay Granger (R-Texas), and Senate Appropriations Chair Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)
DeLauro also chairs the subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, which means she will have a considerable amount of control on youth and family-related pork. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Penn.) presides over spending for the Department of Justice.
On the Senate side, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) presides over the Justice budget, alongside ranking member Jerry Moran (Kansas). The Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies appropriations are overseen by two lawmakers with a wealth of experience on child welfare policy: Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)
Robbie Callaway, perhaps the most influential person in youth services when it came to earmarks, argued to Youth Services Insider that the flexibility within that process is superior to the rigidity of a federal competition.
“If you’ve got a guy on the local level, running a Police Athletic League,” Callaway said, “he knows how to get kids and cops together better than anyone on the national level.” An earmark from the juvenile mentoring account might afford that local program more leeway on how to operate than a grant won through competition.
Callaway, now senior vice president for the consulting firm FirstPic, spent more than two decades doing government relations for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA), and brought in more than $1 billion for the organization and its hundreds of locations around the country. In his last year with the Atlanta-based national office, BCGA took in a whopping $85 million in Congress-directed funds.
It will be interesting to see if some of the organizations that dominated the pork scene of decades yore resume their reign. Chief among them of course is the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which has kept a healthy amount of federal funding coming in through the open competition process at the Department of Justice.
Not every recipient has fared as well: Reading is Fundamental, which used to reliably draw about $25 million from Congress, has seen its annual revenue cut in half since earmarks went away.
During the old earmark days, Callaway said, BGCA resisted a heavy dependence on federal dollars by requiring local funding to meet it.
When it came to distributing the funds from the national down to the local sites, he said, “Every club had to match that dollar for dollar.” And the cache of having a federal grant on the table served as a “seal of good housekeeping” for potential local funding partners.
So will Callaway and FirstPic jump back into the earmark chase on behalf of clients? “I’m not gonna be lobbying Congress,” Callaway said. “But I’ll help them navigate those waters.”