Thanks to the restoration of earmarks in the congressional appropriations process — and the outsize influence of Vermont’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Patrick Leahy — Vermont is seeing disproportionately high federal funding per capita for projects throughout the state.
The $1.5 trillion federal appropriations omnibus bill passed by Congress in March was significant because, for the first time in more than a decade, lawmakers were able to request funding for specific projects in their states, commonly known as earmarks.
As chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Leahy has significant influence over federal spending and often secures outsize sums for his home state. The return of earmarks was no exception.
According to an analysis conducted by CQ Roll Call sourced from data compiled by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Vermont saw the second-highest per capita earmarked dollars from March’s budget omnibus: $321 per person, totaling $207.2 million for the state. (Alaska topped the list at $339 per person.)
By comparison, California, with the largest population in the country, saw $774.1 million in earmarks in the bill — only $19.73 per resident.
CQ Roll Call concluded that states represented by the highest-ranking Senate appropriators received a disproportionate amount of earmarked funds this fiscal year.
In the March package, Leahy alone earmarked more than $167 million for Vermont projects. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., secured more than $38 million and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., more than $8 million.
As the longest-serving senator currently in office, Leahy’s ability to bring home the bacon stretches back years. Before the 10-year moratorium on earmarks imposed by former House Speaker John Boehner took effect in 2011, Leahy had the fourth-highest earmark rate of his colleagues between 2008 and 2010, at $613 per capita over three years.
Leahy was instrumental in bringing back earmarks in 2021 — as well as setting guardrails in response to criticism that the practice led to waste and corruption. Among other new ethics rules, senators are now limited in the number of earmarks they’re able to request, and they may not seek funding for projects in which they or an immediate family member have a financial interest.
According to Leahy’s office, the Government Accountability Office’s reports were published as a result of new transparency and accountability rules the senator established. In a statement Wednesday, Leahy maintained that earmarks are an efficient way to distribute billions in discretionary funds and to “place this power in the hands of community leaders across the country so that federal resources can be directed to where they are most needed and to where they will do the most good.”
“Done transparently and with accountability, Congressionally Directed Spending can be a powerful tool to revitalize our communities and spur economic growth,” he said using the formal name for earmarks. “I am glad to see that (the Government Accountability Office) has followed through with our direction to track and audit this spending so that the American people can see where their tax dollars are being put to work.”
Leahy’s ability to secure federal funding for Vermont is not restricted to earmarks. He has also managed to flood the state with federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other big-ticket spending packages. Vermont saw roughly $2.7 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act alone, a historic sum of money that state policymakers have used to pursue once-in-a-generation investments.
It is widely expected that Leahy’s planned retirement in January after nearly 50 years in office could impact the state’s federal appropriations.
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.