The Tide - notes in the ebb and flow of news

Currently Congress is wrangling over the meaning of “infrastructure.” 

Should the term refer strictly to brick and mortar items to fuel and transport growth, or include the economic safety net of child care, teachers and health care? Those are the basic outlines of political debate surrounding the proposed $2 billion infrastructure spending bill backed by President Joe Biden and many Democrats.

There is another principle dividing the U.S. House of Republican legislators: the use of budget earmarks — often called pork. That’s the term for funding requests by lawmakers for something that directly benefits a state or district. Like a deepwater port, or new housing at Fort Stewart. 

Despite toeing the line on many GOP issues, Coastal Georgia’s Rep. Buddy Carter is one of the few Georgia Republicans who bucked party guidance about earmarks. Republican leaders have strongly discouraged their members for using the popular tool as they try to unify their ranks to defeat the huge infrastructure bill.

Carter has requested $47,144,936 for six projects for Coastal Georgia. They include:

  • Project Derenne ($29M) to address the hairy traffic knot along Savannah’s nastiest stretch of streets; 
  • Two projects for Chatham Area Transit ($8.1M) to add park and ride and paratransit capacity; 
  • A U.S. Army Health and Holistic Wellness program ($1.5M) to be based at Georgia Southern for research and training;
  • A Coastal Equity and Resilience Hub ($5M) to be based at Georgia Tech facilities at King’s Bay submarine base that would “develop the fundamental knowledge and tools to design adaptive coastal infrastructure and equitable resilience strategies under projected future sea level rise scenarios along the vulnerable Georgia coastline”; 
  • The Johnson Rocks Revetment Project ($2.9M) to restore the older rock structure that is designed to protect the Saint Simons Island coastline during natural disasters. 

Congressional earmarking ended 10 years ago under GOP House Speaker John Boehner who called it out for rampant abuse. Earmarking earned a bad reputation when legislators snuffled too far into the public troughs to build things no one needed — like a bridge to literally nowhere. (Thanks, Alaska.)

But this year, as the Democrats regained the majority in the House of Representatives, they restored the practice of allowing representatives to sponsor and tag specific pieces for funding with some new guidelines. Earmarks, or Community Funding Requests, may be tied to one congressional bill now — but they can be deleted and added to other bills as a lawmaker sees which piece of legislation is more likely to pass.

Although Carter has bolstered his reputation in the last couple of years as a staunch pro-Trump Republican, he’s been on the record for longer as a booster for earmarks.

In 2010, Carter argued eloquently in a Savannah Morning News opinion piece that earmarks like helping expand the Savannah port are anything but a bad idea. In fact, he advocated for some creative linguistics for such projects: “And if it has to be through Congressional action, don’t call it an earmark, at least not one of the pork kind. While technically it may be labeled that, an economic development project of this magnitude is anything but pork,” he said at the time.

The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project is now closing in on a $1 billion tab; Sen. Jon Ossoff announced another $100M for the project this past week. 

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Carter is one of only two current GOP representatives from Georgia to request earmarks. 

Rep. Carter’s latest requests are a matter of public record. But it’s not a position he’s talking about in his numerous TV spots on Newsmax and Fox News.

Instead, Carter has vigorously criticized Biden’s infrastructure plans.

In a March 31 statement about the bill, Carter said “America needs a strong, bipartisan infrastructure bill. Unfortunately, the Biden plan is certainly not it. …. Just 5 percent of the Biden plan will go to repairing roads and bridges, just one percent will go to airports and less than one percent will go to our waterways and ports. This is not an infrastructure plan. This is a disguise for the Green New Deal, tax increases, and other liberal policies.”

If these earmarks — and the infrastructure bill — end up passing, commuters heading to work at Hunter Army Airfield might thank their congressman. But voters who care about fiscal prudence could end up punishing him at the next election.

The Tide brings regular notes and observations on news and events by The Current staff.

Susan Catron is managing editor for The Current GA. She has more than two decades of experience in Georgia newspapers. Susan served as executive editor of the Savannah Morning News for nearly 15 years,...