Tensions Rise Over Earmarks

Comity Wanes on Appropriations

Posted April 16, 2010 at 5:51pm

Correction Appended

While Democratic Members waited in line last week to publicly declare the urgency and legitimacy of their transportation and housing earmark requests, not a single Republican joined them.

That’s because aside from a few rogue Republicans, Democrats will be the only House Members seeking earmarks in this year’s spending bills, a fact that is threatening to create a highly charged partisan atmosphere on the House Appropriations Committee, a panel that traditionally has been a haven of bipartisanship in an increasingly polarized Congress.

The Democrats who testified at the Thursday hearing were eager to detail the importance of their projects to their districts. Rep. Laura Richardson (Calif.), for example, described a $2 million earmark request for a “Bridge to Everywhere,” while Rep. Jackie Speier (Calif.) touted the “totally open process” that she’d embraced to vet all earmark requests her office received.

But the hearing, which Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Chairman John Olver (D-Mass.) called specifically to review earmark requests, highlighted an awkward reality for the majority party: House Republicans’ one-year ban on earmarks has left Democrats as essentially the sole purveyors of pork-barrel projects, which the GOP is using to try to gain political advantage ahead of the midterm elections.

Although he did not challenge any of the earmarks Democrats described at the hearing, subcommittee ranking member Tom Latham (R-Iowa) later acknowledged that such sessions highlight the contrast that Republicans are trying to draw through their self-imposed moratorium.

“I think right now, with the fiscal situation that we’re in, that if those dollars could be applied to the deficit, I think the American people would be more pleased with what’s going on,” Latham said.

Democrats barred earmarks benefiting for-profit companies last month, but House Republicans a day later adopted a broader one-year moratorium on all earmarks in spending bills, authorizing bills and tax measures. A few Republicans have refused to abide by the ban, but for the most part GOP Members have withdrawn all earmark requests.

Subcommittee on Homeland Security ranking member Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) predicted that the GOP earmark ban would make the committee more partisan and even suggested that might be a good thing.

“The political pressure will be to condemn the Democrats for continuing this wasteful spending,” Rogers said, adding that his staff would be scouring Democrats’ earmark requests. “We’ll be scrubbing them to make sure there’s no wasteful spending there.”

Rogers, who voted against the ban and has steered earmarks to his poor district in the past, said earmarks have no place in the Homeland Security spending bill.

Subcommittee Chairman David Price (D-N.C.) said the process could be more partisan this year but that it would depend “on what the Republican attitude is going to be.”

“The answer lies largely with our Republican colleagues,” Price said. “On the Democratic side, we’ve pushed a process of earmark reform, more transparency, more accountability that has greatly modified Republican practice. And now Republicans — feeling defensive about that, I suppose — are trying to one-up us with this moratorium, which throws out the baby with the bath water.”

For now, Price said, the absence of Republican earmarks would not influence how he approaches the process.

“I’m not going to change the way I mark up my bill,” he said. “I don’t think other subcommittee chairs will. We will attempt to do it on a cooperative basis. So it’s not going to be a matter of us not extending the hand of cooperation on our side.”

But even Democrats are already taking a combative tone over earmarks. Olver said of the GOP earmark ban: “Isn’t it lovely? They suddenly — having done all the tax cuts unpaid for, both wars unpaid for, everything going immediately on the deficit … now — all of a sudden — they’re suddenly holier than thou. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that amazing?”

Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), said: “My gallon of milk lasted longer than the House GOP’s temporary earmark ban. Their criticisms are going to be laughable since you have Republican Members still requesting earmarks.”

Appropriators of both parties say they are girding for a more pitched partisan atmosphere when it comes to this year’s debate over Members’ pet projects. In previous years, a common interest in bringing home the bacon has been the element that binds appropriators across party lines, particularly in the face of the negative attention earmarks have received in recent years.

Republican leaders are hoping their one-year earmark ban will help them win back the majority in November. So Republican appropriators will have to balance their own interest in preserving their power to earmark funds in the future — GOP Members rejected a permanent earmark ban — with pressure from leadership and conservatives to try to turn earmarks into a political albatross for Democrats.

“This is a great political opportunity to play ‘I gotcha,'” Kingston said. “And yet, I wager most appropriators are still part of the committee first and probably will not be trying to embarrass the Democrats about it.”

Kingston added that appropriators are still more receptive to earmarks than many of their GOP counterparts who don’t sit on the committee.

Still, committee Republicans will be under pressure to score political points by tying Democrats to earmarks.

Asked if he expected more partisanship on the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said, “I sure hope so.” Flake, a vehement earmark opponent, also said: “That’s one committee where we could use a healthy dose of partisanship. It’s been far too clubby.”

A spokesman for Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) did not respond to a request for comment about how the earmark ban might alter the dynamic on the committee.

Latham said Republicans want to “take those savings from not having earmarks and have those numbers go to deficit reduction,” an approach he said would resonate particularly well given the soaring federal deficits.

But not all Republicans are convinced. Subcommittee on Defense ranking member Bill Young (R-Fla.) defended the practice of Congressionally directed spending and predicted that House Republicans eventually would chafe at seeing their Senate counterparts securing earmarks while they stay on the sidelines.

“I don’t think that Members of the House are going to look with favor upon Senators being able to deliver monies to their states when the Members of the House can’t,” Young said.

Senate Republicans have not adopted a similar ban, and the issue has split the GOP Conference. Fifteen Republicans joined most Democrats on March 16 in killing an amendment that would have imposed a two-year earmark moratorium.

Some vulnerable Democrats said they are confident that the benefits of bringing home targeted funds will outweigh the liability of Republicans attacking them for their earmarks.

“Part of my job is if there are projects that are of value in my district, that I would be supporting them and fighting for them and trying to do my best to get some of those dollars that are allocated to come to my district,” said Rep. Frank Kratovil, an endangered freshman Democrat from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Kratovil faces a tough rematch this year against state Sen. Andy Harris, whom he defeated by fewer than 3,000 votes in one of the closest elections of the 2008 cycle.

Kratovil, who sponsored a bill that would require audits of certain earmarks, added, “I think you can distinguish between those projects that are worthy and those that are not.”

Correction: April 19, 2010

The article incorrectly identified which House Democratic leader Doug Thornell serves as a spokesman. He works for Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (Md.).