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Johanns: Strip Nevada Earmark From Highway Bill

Whats wrong with this picture? The Senate is operating under an earmark moratorium, and yet theres an earmark embedded deep within the highway bill now being considered in the chamber.

Its no wonder Congress enjoys a 10 percent approval rating. This earmark isnt listed explicitly, but page 463 contains legislative language directing appropriated funds to a specific state, falling under the definition of an earmark as outlined by Rule 44 in the Standing Rules of the Senate.

Because the Senate has a no-earmark pledge, and because President Barack Obama has promised to veto any bill containing an earmark, it follows necessarily that this provision should be stripped from the highway bill, and Ive offered an amendment to do just that.

The provision in question explicitly identifies a section (an old earmark, as it happens) from the 2005 highway bill. This provision is so specific that we know it applies solely to an earmark to fund the Nevada portion of a maglev rail project from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. That project has since proved so expensive that even the additional earmarked funding could not get the project off the ground. Taxpayer dollars appropriated for the earmark $45 million have sat unspent for years. The highway bill before us explicitly identifies this money and gives it to such state as was identified previously in this case, Nevada.

According to Senate rules, thats an earmark. The provision directs a specific amount of funding to a specific state by rescinding an old earmark and replacing it with a new one. Instead of returning the money to the federal Treasury for deficit reduction, the provision spends it through a new earmark, directed once again to Nevada.

Some claim this provision isnt an earmark because its not new spending. Setting aside the fact that the Senates definition of an earmark does not mention anything about new spending, lets step back and consider the implications for a moment of accepting such an argument.

By virtue of the earmark moratorium, it is understood that the Senate will not pass a bill containing earmarks. This is the pledge we have made to our constituents. If this provision to redirect the 2005 earmark is allowed to stay in the highway bill, it would undermine the original purpose of the earmark moratorium.

We have pledged to the American people that the practice of earmarking funds to specific states is on hiatus. Enabling this earmark in Washington and then returning home to tell folks we dont do earmarks would be shamefully hypocritical.

Equally troubling is the precedent we would be establishing by accepting the but its not new spending argument.

We would be opening the door for any Senator to identify appropriated but unspent funds and reappropriate them to pet projects. Why? Because it wouldnt be an earmark; its not new spending.

Not only that, a Senator could do it anonymously. How? Because that language wouldnt be an earmark, so Rule 44 wouldnt be triggered. The purpose of Rule 44 is to guarantee that all earmark requests are transparently reported. This Nevada provision not only brings back the practice of earmarking but does so dishonestly and surreptitiously.

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