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Working Around Earmark Ban

Members Find Ways to Secure Funds for Home

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (above) and Sen. Daniel Akaka issued a release celebrating a $250 million railway project for Honolulu last week.

Though the Congressional earmark might be dead — or at least in a tea-party-induced coma — lawmaker boasting about funds secured for their states is alive and well as appropriations season kicks into full gear.

Banning earmarks in the traditional sense was a top priority for Republicans when they won back the House in 2010, and the president’s call for the ban in his State of the Union the following January reinforced it. But prohibiting pork has not stopped lawmakers from asking the administration to protect their parochial interests. After the Senate Appropriations panel approved two spending bills last week, Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) issued a press release celebrating a $250 million railway project for Honolulu, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) praised $65 million in funding for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, $15 million above President Barack Obama’s proposed budget.

Sources in both parties say this boasting last week is probably just the beginning. Even with the momentum on Capitol Hill trending against government spending, lawmakers looking to show their constituents they’re attentive to their needs likely will brag about budget wins back home — especially in an election year.

“In Washington state, investing in a sustainable salmon population is incredibly important. It’s not only important to the economic, historic, cultural, and recreational identity of our state, but as part of our federal obligation to meet tribal treaty protected fishing rights,” Murray said in an April 19 statement. “This funding will continue to support projects that boost our local economies, create good paying jobs, and restore and protect salmon habitats.”

The funding being touted by Members is already included in the president’s budget, and the committee bills Inouye, Akaka and Murray have cited do not specifically single out their projects for funding, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t making themselves vulnerable to critique.

“Clearly lawmakers are taking credit for projects that were already slated to receive funding but did it in a very earmark-ish manner,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, who highlighted government spending “gray areas.”

Of course, the line between what is and is not an earmark can be blurry, or at least painted as blurry for those who oppose Congressionally directed spending.

“Typically some of the argument will be these projects weren’t earmarks, that they were actually in the president’s budget,” Ellis said.

He added, “[But] I don’t think it goes against the decision to not have earmarks.”

Indeed, it appears the Senate Appropriations Committee has been careful to make sure Congressionally directed spending would not be a problem in the anti-earmark climate.

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