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Massachusetts communities are poised for a windfall if Congress can pass a new federal budget soon

If lawmakers can reach a deal to fund the government this year, as Democrats hope, it would likely mean a windfall for many Massachusetts communities and institutions like the New England Aquarium.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

WASHINGTON — Congress is racing to pass a federal budget before the end of the year, and Massachusetts communities have tens of millions of dollars at stake.

Members of the state’s all-Democratic delegation have requested more than $200 million in special projects, known as earmarks, many of which already have cleared the important hurdle of being included in drafts of budget bills prepared by the House and Senate.

If lawmakers can reach a deal to fund the government this year, as Democrats hope, it would likely mean a windfall for many Massachusetts communities and institutions. Just a few examples: $2.4 million for the New England Aquarium, $1.1 million for the MGH Center for Immigrant Health, $5 million to replace the Nantasket Avenue Seawall in Hull, and nearly $4 million for the Boys and Girls Club of Stoneham and Wakefield for child care and teen services.

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But with Republicans set to take over the House majority next year, the fate of the more than $1.5-trillion federal budget and earmarks themselves are at risk, from a GOP push to reduce discretionary spending and to do away with the controversial practice altogether.

The Globe compiled all the requests from the state’s congressional delegation, which tally to nearly $200 million already in the House’s draft budget, and more than $66 million in the Senate’s. While some of those projects overlap, the inclusion of the funds in the respective draft bills bodes well for their future — but, again, only if a funding deal can be reached. If not, lawmakers will either allow the government to shut down during the impasse or pass a continuing resolution to keep spending stable but frozen, neither of which will result in earmarks going out.

Requests from Massachusetts lawmakers run the gamut, including climate resilience projects, medical centers, and community programs. Earmarks would go to every corner of the state, from $400,000 for the Provincetown Art Association and Museum to $3 million for the grandstand improvement project in Wahconah Park in Pittsfield.

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If lawmakers do reach agreement, it would mark the second straight budget in which Congress has doled out revamped earmarks, now officially labeled as “community project funding” in the House and “congressional directed spending” in the Senate. They allow House and Senate members to guarantee money to specific projects in their districts without having to apply to grants or programs run by federal agencies, a process that has historically been derided by critics as bloated pork barrel spending and ripe for abuse. Earmarks were banned in 2011 by both chambers after a House Republican majority swept into office in the Tea Party wave.

But lawmakers found it increasingly difficult to pass federal budgets without incentives for members to bring impactful money back to their districts, prompting Democrats to revive the practice when they took the House in 2019 and the Senate in 2021.

This time, community project funding has specific guard rails, including a 15-request limit for House members, a ban on for-profit recipients, a requirement that members sign a certification that they have no financial interest in the projects, and a cap on total earmark spending at 1 percent of the federal discretionary budget.

Though they opposed earmarks in the past, many Republicans have submitted their own requests for the new funding. While some voted against the fiscal year 2022 omnibus government funding bills anyway, most touted the funding of their projects.

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All Massachusetts House lawmakers requested their full allotment of 15 projects, and all but three were included in the House draft budget. Many were trimmed in size, however, with no lawmaker getting their full requested amounts. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey submitted their requests jointly, and so far have secured more than $66 million for 56 projects.

Earmarks are politically advantageous to lawmakers, and also a boon to local communities. The state’s lawmakers have been touring their districts to tout the projects included in the 2022 budget, taking an opportunity to see the results of their efforts and get some credit for bringing home the proverbial bacon.

At a stop last month in Adams to view construction on a recreation center on Mount Greylock made possible by federal funding he secured, Springfield Representative Richard Neal said in an interview that the “arduous process” of securing earmarks was worth it to make such deserving causes a reality.

“These projects, but for us, wouldn’t happen,” Neal said. “That’s the point. . . . It’s striking to me, requests for earmarks come from colleges and universities, local government, and hospitals.”

For this coming budget, most of the delegation got roughly $20 million for their districts into the draft bill.

The state’s biggest requester was freshman Representative Jake Auchincloss of Newton, who asked for more than $50 million worth. Of that, nearly $39 million made it into the draft bill. Auchincloss also secured the delegation’s single largest earmark: $7 million to improve accessibility at Newton commuter rail stations. The next largest requester was Representative Stephen Lynch of Boston, who asked for almost $50 million and got $30 million into the draft.

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Passing a federal budget before the year ends will require agreement between President Biden, congressional Democratic leaders, and some Republicans, as at least 10 GOP votes will be needed in the Senate to pass the budget. Some progressives have voted against spending bills in the past over objections to the large amount of defense spending, so more Republican votes might be needed.

But if negotiators can agree to a deal, and one that includes earmarks, the projects for the approved draft budgets are likely to make it into the final legislation, based on last year’s precedent.

Globe correspondent Shannon Coan contributed to this report.



Tal Kopan can be reached at tal.kopan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talkopan.