By Matthew Choi
The Texas Tribune
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U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus aggressively pushing to rein in federal spending, said he’s worried his colleagues may be going too far.
The deeply conservative Friendswood Republican holds a distinction that separates him from several other caucus members: He is Congress’ top requester of earmarks this year at a time when many fellow conservatives have turned their backs on steering funds to local projects in their districts.
His asks include $100 million for the Ike Dike, an ambitious Gulf Coast hurricane protection project, as well as protections for some of the nation’s biggest energy and trade facilities. And as Republicans fight over how to trim federal spending amid a looming government shutdown, Weber fears some projects that Republicans have been vocal to defend could be threatened.
“Absolutely, that's the case,” Weber said in a recent interview.
Earlier this year, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the White House brokered a deal to not to increase most federal spending next fiscal year. Weber voted against McCarthy’s deal, saying it doesn’t go far enough to curb spending. The deal still passed and now Congress must decide what does and doesn’t get funded within the limits. And House Appropriations Committee Chair Kay Granger, a Fort Worth Republican, said actual spending will be lower than the agreed-to cap.
But the House Freedom Caucus isn’t letting up on the gas, refusing to pass any spending measure unless Congress includes a host of its policy priorities — potentially setting the federal government up for a shutdown. Weber is waiting to see what’s in funding legislation before deciding how he will vote, according to his spokesperson, though he continues to be concerned about spending and advocates cutting across federal agencies.
There isn’t uniform agreement on where cuts should come from, and some bipartisan Texas priorities have already taken a hit. Among them was the $100 million Weber requested for the Ike Dike, a widely backed project meant to protect a large swath of the Gulf Coast, including the Port of Houston. The area is a vital hub to the nation’s energy industry and a massive economic engine for Texas. But it is also vulnerable to hurricanes. Congress authorized $31 billion for the project last year, though that money has not yet been fully appropriated.
“We have seven ports, more than any other member of Congress. We are the No. 1 energy producing district in the country,” said Weber, whose district includes Port Arthur and Lake Jackson. “It's a big expense. $30 billion and counting. But if you add up all of the hurricane damage, and all the FEMA money that was spent and federal money that had to be sent out for disaster recovery, $30 billion would pay for one single disastrous hurricane on the Texas Gulf Coast.”
In all, Weber requested $686 million in earmarks this year — more than any other House member by a wide margin, according to a Roll Call analysis. The next highest request came from Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Michigan, at $466 million. Weber ended up securing $144.3 million of his initial request in committee, placing him as the No. 2 recipient in Congress, according to the Roll Call analysis. Of that, $100 million will go to deepening the Sabine-Neches Waterway in a project Congress already authorized in 2014.
Weber acknowledges that heavy spending in members’ individual districts used to be anathema to House Republicans. In 2011, then-Speaker John Boehner banned earmarks. But Weber and many other Republicans now defend the practice, which Democrats reintroduced in 2021. Earmark proponents say if Congress isn’t specific in legislation that doles out federal funds, the money will have to wind through the bureaucracy of federal agencies, leading to delays and opening the door to mismanagement.
“Let's give the power of the purse back to the people, we represent the people. And who knows District 14 better than Randy Weber,” he said.
Weber isn’t alone in fighting for the Ike Dike. Several federal and local officials from both parties — and the Houston area’s business leaders — back the project.
“This investment is in our national economic interest,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher of Houston said during a 2021 hearing on infrastructure funding. “The Houston region, home to more than 7 million people, is also home to the Port of Houston, the busiest port in the country by total tonnage and home to one of the largest if not the largest concentration of refining and petrochemical complexes in the world.”
If Gulf Coast communities need to find alternative funding for some of their projects, it could slow down development, said Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, whose county includes the Sabine-Neches Waterway, one of the nation’s busiest cargo channels. With inflation increasing production costs, “the longer you put off a project, the more expensive it’s going to be.”
“That work would either have to stop or slow down tremendously until another funding cycle,” Branick said. “And it would be horrible for us because we need that improved increment as quickly as we can get it.”
Weber asserts he won’t stop searching for funding for his projects, particularly the Ike Dike. He expressed optimism that funding could come from appropriations dedicated to federal agencies relevant to the project.
“While this outcome was initially disappointing, the fight to ensure this project is funded doesn't even come close to stopping here,” Weber said in an op-ed in The Galveston Daily News.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune
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