Richard Shelby’s retirement could mean less federal dependency, more fiscal responsibility for Alabama and the nation

Last week, the United State Congress passed a $1.7 billion omnibus spending bill, averting a partial government shutdown and securing funding for the rest of fiscal year 2023. The bill includes $800 million for domestic funding and $858 million in defense spending. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Tuscaloosa) and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Birmingham) voted for the bill, while the rest of Alabama’s House delegation and Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-Auburn) voted no.

Passage came nearly three months after the start of fiscal year 2023, which has become the norm for Washington’s dysfunctional budgeting process. The last time that Congress passed all appropriations bills before the start of the fiscal year was 1996. Congress often fails to pass a broader overarching budget resolution altogether.

Aside from highlighting the continued dysfunction of Washington’s budget process, the passage of this year’s omnibus appropriations act could have long and short-term impacts for Alabamians.

In this year’s bill, outgoing Senator Richard Shelby secured an estimated $666 million in earmarks directed to Alabama. He outpaced the second-highest earmarking Senator by nearly $170 million. That’s on top of about $550 million Shelby brought back to Alabama last year. 

The largest of Shelby’s earmarks were more than $100 million for the University of Alabama, which includes $10 million for a public service and leadership institute that will likely house Shelby’s official papers, $76 million for a new research facility at UAB, $50 million to the city of Mobile for a commercial development loan program, $42 million to Auburn University, and nearly $40 million for airport runway expansion in Abbeville and Tuscaloosa.

Earmarks are in essence budget line items that theoretically represent the priorities of a member’s home state or district. Far too often, the earmarking process has led to corruption, namely, to repay political debts by funneling money to supporters. To be clear, Senator Shelby has never been accused of any wrongdoing. 

Some Alabamians may think it is great that Senator Shelby has brought so much “bacon” back to Alabama. But is it really?

Senator Shelby once again led the earmarking charge, helping drive the bill’s total to more than $15 billion. While it may represent only a fraction of total spending, it encourages a pattern of wasteful use of taxpayer dollars. Every dollar spent by the federal government comes from current or future taxes paid by citizens across the country, including Alabama. It is by no means free money.

The national debt is nearly $31.5 trillion. If Congress does not get serious about the debt problem, Alabamians will feel the harsh economic effects. Republicans like Shelby should be leading the charge for fiscal responsibility, not driving spending higher through more government waste.

There are also policy concerns.

The $800 million in non-defense spending is the largest total ever. Much of that spending reflects the priorities of the Biden administration and House Democrats who remain in control of Congress until next week. 

Several Alabama congressmen had harsh criticism for the bill.

Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Hoover) said “passing a $1.7 trillion spending bill days before Christmas is government at its very worst. This over 4,000-page bill fails to address issues that matter most to the American people.” 

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Haleyville) said that the bill continues a pattern of “reckless spending” while doing nothing to address the crisis at the U.S. southern border or to address rising energy costs.

Rep. Jerry Carl (R) said that there “are way too many bad things for me to support it.”

Finally, Rep. Barry Moore (R-Enterprise) reflected that “House Republicans must take the lead in the next Congress fighting for the interests of the American people.” 

Rep. Moore is right that Republicans should be leading the charge toward fiscal responsibility, but thus far that has not happened in Washington or back home in Alabama. Alabama’s legislature increased spending at a faster rate than California or New York in the last legislative quadrennium.

So where do we go from here?

After nearly 40 years in Congress, Senator Shelby will officially retire on January 3, 2023. Alabama will lose a powerful vice chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, meaning that the flow of money could slow, but less federal dependency and more state autonomy would not be a bad thing for the state.

Incoming Senator Katie Britt (R) has vowed to cut wasteful spending, balance the federal budget, and begin reducing the national debt. She has also said that she would not be in favor of tax increases to do so. But as the seemingly hand-picked successor of Senator Shelby, will her actions match the campaign promises? Only time will tell.

One person cannot do it alone. There must be a shift in mentality from Congress as a whole. Something that is much easier said than done. 

For the sake of Alabama and the country, I hope that Sen. Britt and other newly elected Republicans will act in a truly conservative manner. The same applies to newly elected legislators in Alabama. Both the federal government and Alabama’s state government have a spending problem. We will all pay the price if they do not do something to change course.

Each new session of Congress or the legislature brings a chance to bring real change that will improve the lives of Alabamians. But we must have leaders who are willing to lead the charge for good, and fight for it until the battle is won. 

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