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.
“The fiscal year 2013 appropriations bills will contain no earmarks, but they will certainly contain funding for dozens of projects that are important to individual Members and to their constituents,” said Inouye spokesman Rob Blumenthal. “All of these types of projects were included in the president’s budget, not at the request of a specific Member of Congress, and each of them have gone through an extensive and, in most cases, multiyear vetting process by the responsible department or agency prior to their inclusion in the president’s request.”
The salmon recovery fund has been included in federal budgets since 2000. And Hawaiian lawmakers have spent years trying to secure federal assistance for what they view as a vital rail project. Sources on both sides of the earmark issue pointed out that the Hawaiian lawmakers did not secure more than what the Obama administration allotted in its budget, a signature move for appropriators in the earmarking era.
“Honolulu has gone through this rigorous process, and certainly Daniel Inouye can be an effective champion for this project and the need for this railway, but it’s not like he can go out on his own and get funds for this project that’s going to transform Honolulu,” said one Senate Democratic aide who described a years-long process and the Appropriations Committee chairman’s involvement in it.
At least for now, leaders in both parties and chambers have committed to moving forward with appropriations bills in regular order. In the Senate committee, only GOP Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Jerry Moran (Kan.) voted against the baseline levels set by last summer’s Budget Control Act. The overwhelming support for the negotiated appropriations levels was viewed as a statement to House Republicans, who have been fighting to cut spending further.
Senate aides said they anticipate both Republicans and Democrats to champion parochial wins in the pending bills, which Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he’d like to have wrapped up this spring.
Privately, many Senate GOP aides laugh at the idea that they won’t tout projects in their states that lawmakers have promoted for years. But that won’t stop others, especially those who are more conservative, from going after Senators, even colleagues of their party, who praise government spending of any kind.
“They’re lining up the targets is what they’re doing,” said one Republican aide to a Member who has fought against earmarks. The aide dismissed those who crow about projects as celebrating the “passage of press release bills.”
“Congress should be focused on ways to reduce our debt and not ways to circumvent the earmark ban,” the aide continued. “There’s a cultural gap between Washington and the country on how you define a good Congressperson. One of the ways lawmakers perceive they can be good at their jobs is to bring home the bacon, but for every project in whatever state, Members end up funding wasteful projects in other states. That’s what people realized in the earmark battle."