Political earmarks still thriving
WASHINGTON – Dramatic increases in earmarks – pet projects quietly slipped into spending bills – figured prominently in Republican scandals that helped Democrats win control of Congress last year.But now, with Democrats in charge, the practice is still thriving.A bill that the Senate approved last week to authorize water projects contains 446 earmarks, while the House version has 692.The Senate bill was the first to come before the chamber since it adopted new rules earlier this year on the practice.Those rules require earmarks and their sponsors to be identified, ending the once-secret process in which lawmakers anonymously inserted projects into legislation. But taxpayer watchdogs hoped the exposure would curb enthusiasm for earmarks. And they thought the decision this year by Democrats to pass a funding bill without earmarks was a signal of a dramatic shift.If the water bill is a sign of things to come, the appetite for earmarks remains undiminished.”Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” grumbled Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the most outspoken critics of pork-barrel spending.Democrats appear to be relishing their new majority status, which comes with the power to shape bills and attach special projects.Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which drafted the nearly $14 billion bill, directed one-tenth of the money, nearly $1.4 billion, to projects in her state.”It’s good to be queen,” quipped Steve Ellis of the Washington-based watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.Boxer secured $25 million for revitalizing the Los Angeles River, more than double the amount Republicans had intended to put in their bill, which died in the last Congress. Boxer has described the project as transforming the often-ridiculed river from a “concrete eyesore into a beautiful asset.”The measure also includes millions of dollars for flood-protection projects in the state, which faces considerable risk of a New Orleans-style disaster with its aging levees.Critics charged that Democrats, despite their election-year rhetoric, are now pursuing pet projects as vigorously as Republicans have in the past.In the past decade, the amount of earmarked federal money has tripled. When Democrats came to power this year, President Bush challenged them to halve the number and amount of earmarks, from a record 13,496 worth $19 billion in the 2005 federal fiscal year.The Senate bill, with its 446 projects, has more than a version drafted last year when Republicans were in charge. That bill had 272.”Just because there are earmarks doesn’t mean that it’s business as usual,” said Jim Berard, the spokesman for Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which wrote the House water bill.Democrats have taken steps to “ensure that the earmark abuse that has occurred in the past does not happen again,” he said. “Earmarks can no longer be inserted anonymously, in the dead of night, to please a powerful lobbyist or political supporter. While this will not satisfy some critics, it is a major step toward re-establishing trust with the American public.”Indeed, the project sponsors in the water bill were identified. And senators, for the first time, signed statements – posted on the Internet – attesting that neither they nor their spouses have a financial stake in the project.Earmarks have become increasingly tainted as more federal investigations focus on whether lawmakers sponsored them for payoffs or to benefit themselves. The practice played a role in scandals involving imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff and ex-California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham.It also generated public outrage after a $223 million bridge connecting Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with an airport and about 50 inhabitants – was slipped into the 2005 highway bill by then-House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska.Controversy over earmarking erupted again last week.Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., accused Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, of threatening to deny funding for projects in Rogers’ district because he had questioned a Murtha earmark. Rogers is expected to file a resolution this week calling for Murtha to be reprimanded.Murtha’s office did not directly respond to the allegation, but it issued a statement that said: “The committee and staff give every Democrat and Republican the same consideration.”Appearing on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., defended Murtha, saying: “Congressman Murtha has – enjoys – an excellent reputation in the Congress on both sides of the aisle. … I think Mr. Murtha’s reputation for bipartisanship will hold in good stead.”The water bill’s approval by the Senate came as congressional appropriations committees have begun poring through requests from lawmakers to fund their favorite home-state projects.For budget watchdogs, the number of earmarks in the water legislation was an inauspicious start.Earmarks remain popular on Capitol Hill. The House and Senate water bills were overwhelmingly approved. Within minutes, lawmakers e-mailed releases touting their efforts to deliver federal tax dollars to their states.”This legislation authorizes several projects, at my request, to benefit the people of Nebraska by reducing the threat of flood and mitigating the effects of drought,” Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said in a statement.The water bill only authorizes spending on water projects. Congress would still have to appropriate the money before they could move forward.A few lonely lawmakers complained that the practice substitutes the wishes of politicians seeking to please constituents for expertise of federal agencies. “It’s not a good way for the federal government to operate when we’re picking sewer plants and water projects all over the country,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. “Despite what we say, we’re not experts.”But the bill’s proponents argue that lawmakers, in consultation with local and state officials, know far more about what their states need than Washington bureaucrats. And they note that the bill is so stuffed with projects because it’s been seven years since Congress last passed a big water-resources bill.”One of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina is that we ignore our water infrastructure needs at our nation’s peril,” Boxer said. “Some of the communities this bill will protect have waited seven years or more for these projects.”
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