Tough Races, More Earmarks

Democrats Aid Vulnerables

Posted July 8, 2008 at 6:49pm

Vulnerable House lawmakers are already outpacing their more senior rank-and-file colleagues in grabbing earmark dollars for their districts, proof that politics continues to play a pivotal role in the appropriations process.

The dynamic is particularly pronounced among Democrats, who, in the two most earmarked spending bills unveiled so far, appear to be parceling out equally sized pots of money to incumbents facing the toughest challenges.

Sixteen Democrats in the “Frontline” program, aimed at protecting the 29 most vulnerable House Democrats, secured $810,000 worth of earmarks each in the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill. It is unclear how appropriators arrived at that sum.

Democratic Reps. Don Cazayoux (La.), Travis Childers (Miss.) and Bill Foster (Ill.) — who this spring helped Democrats expand their majority by winning special elections in heavily Republican districts — all received $810,000 for earmarks as well, according to an analysis of figures from Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog.

And in the Commerce, Justice and Science spending measure, 18 Frontline members received $900,000 worth of projects each, as did Foster and Rep. André Carson (Ind.), who won a special election in March to succeed his late grandmother.

In both bills, rank-and-file Democrats in safe seats appear to average significantly less. Kirsten Brost, spokeswoman for House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), did not respond to a request for comment.

Critics of the process charge that distributing taxpayer dollars on the basis of political considerations is at odds with a primary argument earmark defenders often advance: that lawmakers are better suited than bureaucrats to make effective decisions about where to spend taxpayer money.

“It fundamentally undercuts the idea that this is at all a merit-driven process,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of programs at Taxpay- ers for Common Sense. “There is no distinction among these different lawmakers, who have very different districts and different needs within them.”

Republicans facing stiff competition for the most part are also pulling down greater sums in both bills than their safe colleagues, though there appears to be less coordination. For example, among the 23 Republican incumbents participating in the Regain Our Majority Program this cycle, 14 secured $900,000 or more in the Labor-HHS bill. But their takes ranged widely, from Rep. Sam Graves (Mo.), who claimed $900,000 worth of projects, to Rep. Joe Knollenberg (Mich.), an appropriator, who secured $2.25 million. Twelve of those Republicans pulled down $1 million or more in the CJS bill, with eight of them securing $1.5 million each.

Jennifer Hing, minority spokeswoman for the Appropriations Committee, suggested political considerations aren’t part of the calculus in determining which projects get funded. “All earmark requests are considered and debated on their merits,” she said. “All the requests get a fair and thorough scrubbing by the committee to make sure they deserve funding, pass the smell test and comply with earmark rules and regulations.”

An ongoing debate in the House Republican Conference about whether the party should swear off earmarks was reflected in the performance of vulnerable GOPers. Four of them have signed a pledge to forgo the projects, and another — Rep. Tom Feeney (Fla.) — has limited himself to requesting funding only for projects already under way and did not ask for money in either bill.

This is the second year that transparency standards in the appropriations process require a precise accounting of who is getting what. Analysis of last year’s spending bills showed a clear pecking order in the hunt for earmarks, with Congressional leaders and Appropriations Committee members taking home far more than their colleagues.

Vulnerable lawmakers, too, fared better than their politically secure counterparts in last year’s bills. Those in the 73 House districts designated as competitive by the Cook Political Report on average brought home 14 percent more in earmarked projects than others not on the committee, Taxpayers for Common Sense found. The study found that Democrats in competitive races averaged $29.4 million in earmarks each, outpacing vulnerable Republicans, who averaged $23.4 million.

That vulnerable Members, many of whom are freshmen representing comparatively wealthy areas, were securing more money than senior lawmakers from poorer districts prompted gripes from some corners of the Democratic Caucus last year. Minority Members especially felt they were getting shorted. One appropriations lobbyist said that in the wake of those discussions, committee staff have examined how to inject more “standardization and predictability” into the process.

“What you’ve seen this year is a realignment that is a little more democratic,” he said. As a result, this lobbyist predicted that Frontline Democrats would actually fare slightly worse this year than last, as leaders seek to spread some of their project money to more disadvantaged districts.

Several spokesmen for vulnerable Democrats said they received no advance notice from the Appropriations panel of how much they would be receiving. Childers, for example, made $8 million worth of requests in the Labor-HHS bill for a single entity: Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Miss. “The situation there was so bad, they didn’t have the resources to let students into their nursing program,” said Dana Edelstein, his spokeswoman. The school received an $810,000 earmark for facilities and equipment. Foster, who likewise received $810,000 for his requests, saw them spread across seven projects, from $25,000 for a childhood obesity program at the Kendall County Health Department in Yorkville, Ill., to $250,000 for a computer training program at the Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove, Ill. “We just acted the way every other Congressional office acts in accordance with the appropriations process — we submit requests to the committee,” Foster spokeswoman Shannon O’Brien said.

But one aide to a Frontline Democrat said that, at least based on experience, lawmakers in tough races know they will be getting a little extra from the committee. “They kind of know they are going to get more of their requests prioritized,” the aide said.

The concept of directing earmarks to shore up political weak spots is hardly novel. In the summer of 1996, as a then-newly minted House Republican majority headed into its first test at the polls, Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) circulated a memo directing appropriators to focus on funding California projects, as the Golden State figured prominently in the party’s plans for retaining the majority. And former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is widely credited with transforming the process into a political cudgel during his time in GOP leadership, presiding over an unprecedented boom in the projects — a development many conservative Republicans now blame for helping the party slip from power.