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Appropriations Season: Nonprofits and Government Agencies Eligible for Federal “Community Project Funding”

March 29, 2021

In 2011, House Republicans adopted a self-imposed ban on including earmarked funding provisions in discretionary appropriations bills, which was mirrored in practice by many in the Senate, creating an effective congressional moratorium on earmarks. This “earmark ban” endured until last month when the House Republican Conference voted to lift their own policy against including earmarks in appropriations bills, by a vote of 102 to 84 on March 17. The US Senate quickly indicated that they would also resume congressionally-directed spending.

Originally, the ban was imposed in response to growing public concern that earmarks might be frivolous spending or opportunities for corruption. Curiously, this political move did not actually ban or remove earmarks from budgets over the past decade; instead, it shifted most of the decision-making power to spend those funds from the legislative branch to the executive branch (or made the process of getting earmarks through the legislature much more secretive).[1] Despite public perception that earmarks were gone and discretionary spending was cut, roughly the same levels of spending[2] have been maintained in each of the appropriations bills through the years since the implementation of the moratorium.

Recognizing that reopening the process for congressionally-directed spending through appropriations with improved transparency, accountability, and policy safeguards would indeed be more beneficial to communities than the policy and practices of the last 10 years, the 117th Congress has signaled earmarks are back – though they have been rebranded and have more strict regulations pertaining to them. Now called “Community Project Funding,” the House recently released additional rules[3] for their consideration process and who is eligible for these funds. Among those new restrictions:

  • No for-profit grantees. All Community Project Funds must be allocated to an IRS designated 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization or a state or local government and their respective agencies;
  • Each Representative can only make 10 requests in total;
  • All requests must be made by Representatives online simultaneously; 
  • All recommendations for Community Project Funds made by House appropriations subcommittees must be made publicly available for comment at least 24 hours before full committee consideration; and
  • Representatives must be able to demonstrate that there is community support for the Community Project.


It should be noted that the Senate has not yet released their rules and restrictions regarding Community Project Funding; however, the consensus is that there is bipartisan support for resuming discretionary spending and no big surprises or major differences between House and Senate guidelines are expected (although one difference may be that the Senate does not limit the number of requests made by Senators to 10).[4]

So… what does this mean for nonprofits and government agencies? How do these entities make an appeal to Congress to be considered for Community Project Funding? Here is a step-by-step guide to locating instructions from your US Senators and US Representatives in order to make your plea:

STEP #1 – Identify your state’s two US Senators and the US Representative or Representatives from the congressional district or districts that overlap your service area. Here’s how you can identify who those Congresspeople are:

Find your US Senators

https://www.senate.gov/senators/senators-contact.htm

Find your US Representative by Congressional District

https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative

STEP #2 – Once you have identified your US Senators and relevant US Representatives, visit their websites. Usually, you can click their names or pictures on the websites above to get directly to their websites, but occasionally, you may have to search for them in a search engine. You may need to call your Congressperson’s office to get information about their process.

If they plan to participate in the Community Project Funding request process, most Congresspeople will have an application, packet, and/or guidelines somewhere on their website. Look for the phrases “Appropriations,” “Appropriations Requests,” “Earmark Requests,” “Community Project Funding,” or the like in their directory.

Pro-Tip: If you aren’t readily finding it, try their search bar (if they have one) with the above terms or try the following search in your favorite search engine “[Name of the Congressperson] +[Appropriations].”

For example, New Mexico’s two US Senators each have their applications available on their websites. 

US Senator Martin Heinrich (Deadline: April 2, 2021)

https://www.heinrich.senate.gov/helping-you/appropriations-requests

US Senator Ben Ray Luján (Deadline: None Listed)

https://www.lujan.senate.gov/appropriations-request-form/

Of the three congressional districts in New Mexico, the 1st District is currently vacant (so no applications can be submitted here), the US Representative for the 2nd District is accepting requests by email only, and the US Representative for the 3rd District has theirs available on their website.

US Representative (VACANT), 1st District (Deadline: N/A)

US Representative Yvette Herrell, 2nd District (Deadline: April 1, 2021)

Interested Parties should contact Representative Herrell’s office at RepHerrell@mail.house.gov.

US Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez, 3rd District (Deadline: April 14, 2021)

https://fernandez.house.gov/services/appropriations-request

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is important to note here that not all Congresspeople will participate in the option to submit Community Project Funding requests. Be mindful here, when looking for an application or contacting their offices that, for a variety of political reasons, some Congresspeople will not submit requests to appropriations sub-committees (remember that 84 Republicans voted against lifting the earmarks ban and there are Democrats and Independents that also don’t participate).

In the past, it was also possible that a Congressperson might not have a formal application process, but would entertain meetings to discuss earmark requests. Once they decided on which requests to submit to appropriations sub-committees for consideration, they would either ask you to submit something in writing at that time or their staff would write up their own summary of the request and community support and potential impact. Given COVID-19, the quick turnaround time for the 117th Congress Community Project Funding requests, and new regulations, this is less likely – though not impossible – to encounter.

STEP #3 – Fill out the application! This is usually the most time-intensive part of the request process and requires you to submit written, persuasive content in support of your Community Project. You will likely be asked to which appropriations sub-committee your request should be submitted (they are named the same in both the Senate and House for continuity). Your 10 options are:

  • Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies
  • Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies
  • Defense
  • Energy and Water Development
  • Financial Services and General Government
  • Homeland Security
  • Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies
  • Labor, Health, Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies
  • Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies
  • Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies

There are two other appropriations sub-committees (Legislative Branch and State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs), however neither of those sub-committees generally have discretionary funding available to the public. 

Please note: While your Representative may have a deadline as late as April 14th, 2021 for you to remit your application, it is not wise to wait until this time. The various House appropriation sub-committees have deadlines for Representatives to submit requests between April 14th and April 16th, 2021, so getting your request in to the Representative that late (but still “on time”) works against you. Remember, your Representative will only be able to recommend 10 Community Projects – give them time to consider all of the requests (including yours!) together before they start solidifying plans for what they are going to submit to the sub-committees. (At the time of this publication, the Senate’s rules and deadlines for Community Project Funding had not yet been set.)

Here are some tips for writing your application:

  • Be thorough, but brief! Remember your Senator and Representatives will likely be receiving many requests. Don’t bore them or their staff with lengthy applications. If they’re truly interested, but need to know more information in order to make a decision, they will contact you.
  • Make sure you give the who, what, where, when, how, and most importantly the WHY! Write an explicit statement about how funding will not only benefit your organization or agency and its program beneficiaries and/or service recipients, but also the community as a whole. Articulate how your Community Project is a worthy project to use taxpayer dollars on. 
  • Remember that your Senator or Representative has to be prepared to demonstrate that there is community support for your project. Citing community partners, collaborators, and prominent supporters could be helpful in garnering attention and support for your application from your Senator or Representative.
  • A good general rule of thumb for the range of requests is between approximately $100,000 to $2,000,000 (this is a rough range and not an exact science). Bear in mind that the House has capped Community Project Funding to be no more than 1% of all discretionary funding, so asking for too much will make your request easy to pass over; conversely, if a Representative is using one of their 10 requests on your Community Project, you likely need to demonstrate that more than just a few thousand dollars (that could likely be raised elsewhere) is needed to bring this benefit to the community.
  • Finally, remember that this is a one-time deal and that all funds need to be spent within one year or so. Requests for standard annual operating or program support will almost never get funded. Shovel-ready capital projects, equipment and technology purchases, special short-term initiatives to benefit the community are your most likely best bets to be funded through the Community Project Fund. Additionally, projects that don’t have other federal funding streams available to them already will likely be given priority.

STEP #4 – Once you have submitted your application to your Senators and Representative(s), follow up with each office. This should be a brief email or phone call and you will likely talk to staff. Ask if they have any questions about your request, would like a site visit, or want a fuller conversation or presentation. In years past, during “Appropriations Season” there was much more time to plan for and execute these events. Between COVID-19 and the fact that the House only lifted the earmark ban on March 17th and appropriations sub-committee deadlines start April 14th, the logistics probably do not support in-person site visits or full-fledged presentations – though you could do versions of either of these things via webconference. Your Congressperson’s staff will usually advise you if your project was selected for submission, but not always. Don’t be afraid to follow-up in late April to see whether or not your Community Project was submitted for consideration. Either way, be sure to thank your Senators and/or Representative(s) and their staff for their consideration of your request. Build that relationship for next year!

STEP #5 – Wait… for a long time. If your Congressperson has chosen your Community Project, they will submit it to the appropriate sub-committee. Each year, these 12 appropriations sub-committees will go through the full process of debating budgetary issues, line items, and discretionary funding, then submit their final recommendations to their respective Senate or House Committee on Appropriations for approval for inclusion in the full federal appropriations bill to be passed by the Senate or the House. It is vital to remember that even if your Congressperson recommends your Community Project to the sub-committee and demonstrates community support and the potential impact it might have for your community/state, your project still might not be suggested for funding by the appropriations sub-committee. This is a lengthy process wherein each bipartisan sub-committee proposes and debates 24 separate bills, which eventually get aggregated and submitted to the President as one bill for approval (hopefully) by the start of the new fiscal year, which is October 1st. It is, however, not at all uncommon for that deadline to come and go without an approved appropriations bill. If you recall any of the past years where “a government shutdown” was threatened or even happened, that was because the October 1st deadline was not met.

If your Congressperson did not choose your Community Project this year, do not despair! If things go well this year, the Community Project Fund will be around next year and you can try again. Your project or need may change by then, but now you’ve gone through the process and know generally what to expect. You can plan, prepare, and hit the ground running in March. You can even invite your Congressperson and their staff for a site visit, luncheon, workshop, or community presentation sometime in January or February to get them familiar with your organization or agency and the work that you do.

If your Community Project is approved for inclusion into the final budget bill passed by Congress and signed into law by the President, you have secured your one-year funding! Bear in mind, that accepting and spending this funding is subject to possible audits from the Government Accountability Office, who will ensure compliance and report its findings to Congress, so be sure to spend the funds as proposed.

For additional information on Congressional appropriations committees and sub-committees, discretionary congressionally-directed spending, Community Project Funding, and the general appropriations process, please visit these links:

“Community Project Funding: Reforms for Transparency and Accountability Fact Sheet” from the House Committee on Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro

https://appropriations.house.gov/sites/democrats.appropriations.house.gov/files/documents/Community%20Project%20Funding%20-%20Fact%20Sheet%20on%20Reforms_0.pdf

“Lifting the Earmark Moratorium: Frequently Asked Questions” from Congressional Research Service

https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45429

President Biden’s FY2022 Budget

https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/

Senate Appropriations Sub-Committees

https://www.appropriations.senate.gov/subcommittees

House Appropriations Sub-Committees

https://appropriations.house.gov/subcommittees

“Community Project Funding: 117th Congress Revives and Recalibrates the Earmark Process” Holland & Knight Law Firm Alert

https://www.hklaw.com/en/insights/publications/2021/03/community-project-funding-117th-congress-revives-the-earmark-process

“Earmarks are back, and American should be glad” from the Brookings Institution

https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2021/03/17/earmarksare-back-and-americans-should-be-glad/

“Just What Earmark ‘Moratorium’ Are They Talking About?” from Project on Government Oversight (POGO)

https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2018/01/just-what-earmark-moratorium-are-they-talking-about/


[1] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2021/03/17/earmarks-are-back-and-americans-should-be-glad/

[2] https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2018/01/just-what-earmark-moratorium-are-they-talking-about/

[3] “Community Project Funding: Reforms for Transparency and Accountability Fact Sheet” from the House Committee on Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro.

https://appropriations.house.gov/sites/democrats.appropriations.house.gov/files/documents/Community%20Project%20Funding%20-%20Fact%20Sheet%20on%20Reforms_0.pdf

[4] https://www.hklaw.com/en/insights/publications/2021/03/community-project-funding-117th-congress-revives-the-earmark-process

Contact: Tonia Brown, Resource Development Officer, tonia@thegrantplantnm.com

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