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From Tammy Baldwin to Lauren Boebert, Congress members just brought home the dough

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 23: U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) talks on the phone near the Senate Chambers on  March 23, 2024 in Washington, DC. The House of Representatives passed a $1.2 trillion spending bill to fund the government through September and avert a partial shutdown. The legislation will now go to the Senate for consideration. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Last week, Ohio Republican voters nominated Bernie Moreno to run against Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown. As Ohio has moved from being a swing state to a solidly pro-Donald Trump Republican outpost in the Midwest, Brown remains the only statewide elected Democrat there.

Democrats will need to spend mountains of cash to help his campaign in a state Trump won twice. But Brown has also received some additional help in the form of the two spending bills that passed this month, thanks to “earmarks”.

Earmarks are the part of the appropriations process that allow for members to request spending for specific projects in their home state or district. For many years, Congress included earmarks as a way to get members onboard must-pass legislation such as spending bills. A little money toward a pet project can soften the blow of a bill someone does not like — and it gives members something to point to when they face re-election.

After the 2008 financial crisis, earmarks — or, as they are formally known, congressionally directed spending — gained a bad reputation. Sarah Palin famously said “thanks but no thanks” to the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” her Republican congressman pushed to include. And when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2011, they banned earmarks entirely.

But when Democrats took control of both chambers in 2021, earmarks returned. They may help some Senators in tough races say they actually got something done in their home state. In Brown’s case, he can point $15.2m he received in the spending bill, which included $1.32m for the Big Walnut Joint Fire District Fire Station in Marengo, Ohio. He and Republican Representative Mike Turner also brought home $2m for a research center at the University of Dayton.

Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin faces a similarly tough challenge in a state that Trump won in 2016 but Biden flipped in 2020. She can campaign on her pro-labor stances and on codifying protections for same-sex and interracial married couples.

Additionally, as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she can say she worked to get Wisconsin its fair share of federal dollars. In the agriculture bill alone, Baldwin brought back more than $11m in projects for Wisconsin, even working with pro-Trump Republican Derrick Van Orden to bring back money to the largely rural state. (This goes to the long-standing saying in Washington: There are three parties in Washington: Democrats, Republicans and appropriators).

Senator Jon Tester’s home state of Montana voted for Trump by 16 points. He frequently talks about how Democratic policies like the Inflation Reduction Act create jobs and Obamacare helps rural hospitals. But Tester did not request any money in the spending bill — which allows him to sell himself as a foul-mouthed, seven-fingered dirt farmer who does not take kickback deals from Washington.

Many Republicans continue to balk at earmarks for that same reason. Hence why Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who faces re-election and is unpopular with many even in his own party, likely did not request any money in the spending bill himself.

While Senator Ted Cruz of Texas did not request any money, his Democratic opponent in November, Congressman Colin Allred, brought home projects for his home district in Dallas.

Of course, it would not be Washington without some good old-fashioned hypocrisy. Representative Lauren Boebert announced late last year that she would switch districts after she nearly lost re-election in Colorado’s 3rd district in 2022. Instead, this year she will run in the more conservative 4th district, since Ken Buck announced his retirement. Boebert is a member of the House Freedom Caucus that decries overspending and she voted against the first batch of spending bills in early March — but then bragged about bringing home $20m in water and infrastructure projects. When I pressed her about that recently, she told me, “I didn’t agree to the swampy way it came to the floor but I fought to get the stuff in the bills and it’s there.”

Similarly, despite Marjorie Taylor Greene filing a motion to vacate against House Speaker Mike Johnson about the spending bills, she brought in millions of dollars for federal projects in the first tranche of them. Clearly, despite adopting Trump’s slogan of “Drain the Swamp,” Greene has learned one of its oldest tricks: to vote “no” and then take the dough.