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‘Airdrops’ for the Vulnerable

Congress is apparently hoping the next major disaster to hit the nation will strike in the district of a vulnerable Member.

A Roll Call analysis of the earmarks added to the omnibus appropriations bill indicates that more than half of “airdropped earmarks” — provisions that had not previously been approved in either chamber — were targeted to districts represented either by a member of the Appropriations Committee or a Member considered vulnerable for the 2008 elections. All told, of the 298 identified airdropped earmarks included in the bill over the past several weeks, 174 will go either to members of an Appropriations committee or to vulnerable incumbents. Members of the House and Senate Democratic leadership teams accounted for an additional 18 airdropped earmarks.

The omnibus package was headed toward Senate approval Tuesday night and then back to the House for final approval.

Observers say it is no surprise that the parties are targeting their earmarks to the politically powerful and the politically vulnerable; what makes the omnibus bill remarkable is the ability to so clearly track the trend, as this year Congress is releasing names with each earmark for the first time. Additionally, Republicans and outside watchdog groups point to a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) in which Kilpatrick explicitly raises the issue of using earmarks to help the election chances of vulnerable Members.

“This is the problem with how Congress sees the budget. It’s the currency of re-election,” said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog organization that has been critical of the earmarking process.

Allison argues that while earmarking is not inherently bad, it has become too tied to politics in recent years, resulting in leadership in both chambers — and of both parties — directing funds not simply on the basis of merit but on electoral need. “This is the same thing Republicans did in 2005 and 2006 that cost them the majority,” Allison said, adding that who gets earmarks “has nothing to do with where the money should go and everything to do with propping up incumbents.”

Indeed, according to the review, 48 of the airdropped earmarks went to 16 Republican incumbents in the House and Senate facing difficult re-elections and 21 Democrats. While most Republican vulnerables each received a single airdropped earmark, 31 went to Democrats, with Reps. Heath Shuler (N.C.), Jim Marshall (Ga.) and Ciro Rodriguez (Texas) receiving multiple earmarks.

Some Members did significantly better than others. For instance, Shuler received three earmarks totaling more than $10 million, though one of those also was requested by Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and was worth $3.733 million.

The trend is particularly acute in the disaster mitigation grant program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The omnibus bill added 95 earmarks worth $51 million in that account, only eight of which were requested by Members who are neither endangered nor appropriators and/or leadership.

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