Home-State Pork: a Tad Kosher?

Posted March 7, 2008 at 6:30pm



Correction Appended

Anti-earmark crusaders Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) have gone after everything from the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska to the “Hippie Museum” in New York, but projects in their home states have largely escaped their eagle eyes.

Though neither Coburn nor DeMint asks the Senate Appropriations Committee to set aside funds for pet projects, their counterparts Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) regularly do.

While Coburn went after a $300,000 earmark for a Vermont planetarium last year, a $200,000 Inhofe request for a Cherokee museum in Enid, Okla., went unchallenged. The Oklahoma museum ultimately received $137,000 last year, according to a Taxpayers for Common Sense database of earmarks.

Similarly, DeMint targeted $2 million for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York — a center sponsored by and named for the New York Democratic Congressman. However, Graham’s request for $600,000 to aid the law clinic at the University of South Carolina School of Law was not questioned. The law school received $188,000 in the end, the database showed.

Republican and Democratic appropriators have long resented Coburn and DeMint, as well as other GOP conservatives who have made earmarks their cause célèbre for targeting pet projects in spending bills while skipping over those requested by Senators from their own states.

Taxpayers for Common Sense spokesman Steve Ellis said Members who go after earmarks have to walk a fine line politically in terms of not alienating their home-state Members while not appearing to target earmarks for partisan reasons.

“It’s something they have to be cognizant of,” Ellis said. He added, “Once you become a leader on something, you’re held to a higher standard. It’s sort of a risk that goes along with that.”

Coburn defended his decision to largely overlook targeted spending in his home state, saying that Oklahoma receives far fewer earmarks than other states. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, Oklahoma ranks 38th in overall earmark value and received more than $109 million in earmarks in 2008 alone.

“The amount of earmarks that go to Oklahoma is a pittance compared to what goes to most every other place,” Coburn said. He noted that a few years ago he helped eliminate an earmark for a Ponca City, Okla., museum.

“It got in one year. It never got there again,” he said. “I said, ‘Don’t put it in there. I’m going to take it out.’ And that’s what I’ve told a lot of people.”

DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said that his boss has not made a point to avoid going after Graham or other South Carolina politicians’ earmarks, noting that DeMint loudly criticized Rep. James Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) $3 million request for a nonprofit group to teach golf to children on military bases.

“Reformers look at bills with earmarks and target the very egregious and wasteful ones, but we only have a couple of days at most to review them,” Denton said. “Reformers have been very consistent in fighting for an end to this broken process. Right now we’re calling for a complete time-out on all the earmarks, and it will affect everyone equally.”

DeMint and Coburn have called for an earmark moratorium and offered several amendments last year that would have killed all the earmarks in some bills. DeMint aims to win support this week for a budget amendment calling for an earmark moratorium.

Coburn said he backs GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) anti- earmark efforts: “I’m with McCain. Until we fix the ethical questions around earmarks, we shouldn’t do any. Period.”

Still, both have relied heavily on floor amendments targeting what they see as ridiculous earmark requests for things such as museums and agricultural research.

Ellis noted that neither Inhofe nor Graham “are exactly the biggest earmarkers. They’re not as target-rich an environment.”

Both Graham and Inhofe insisted that they do not vet their earmarks with their in-state colleagues before offering them, but Graham noted that he attempts to whittle down his list using criteria that “Jim and I both agree upon.”

South Carolina ranks 34th on Taxpayers for Common Sense’s list of state earmark totals, with nearly $152 million in 2008. California tops the list with close to $1 billion in earmarks.

“I don’t think Jim is saying that the Congress has no role in spending federal money,” Graham said. “I think what he’s saying is the way we earmark, the few get most, and it’s not based on merit, and you don’t know about it until you read about it in the paper, and it’s got to stop. I’m completely with him.”

Graham added that he tries to be “judicious” in requesting earmarks and that he attempts to focus his earmark requests on infrastructure.

Graham has been a high-profile supporter of McCain’s presidential bid and has backed McCain’s battle to rid spending bills of questionable earmarks.

Inhofe, on the other hand, has provided Coburn and DeMint with plenty of fodder in recent years as the co-sponsor of both the 2005 highway bill and the 2007 Water Resources Development Act. Both measures originated in the Environment and Public Works Committee — on which Inhofe has served as chairman and ranking member — and the bills have been criticized as top offenders of “pork barrel” politics.

Inhofe spokeswoman Elizabeth French explained that Inhofe has his own process for determining what earmarks to request.

“Our office discusses each individual project with Oklahoma constituents and local leaders, and then determines which holds the most merit for Oklahoma,” French said.

Others think that the objections to earmarks should begin at home.

“If they think that earmarks are inherently wrong or evil, they should set an example by eliminating earmarks in their own state,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said.

Correction: March 10, 2008

The article incorrectly described a Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) earmark. He requested $3 million for a nonprofit group to teach golf to children on military bases, not for a golf center named after him.