Senators choose to ban earmarks, then grab them
WASHINGTON -- More than two dozen senators, most Republicans, who recently voted to ban homestate projects are claiming hundreds of earmarks in an almost $1.3 trillion bill to fund most federal programs and agencies into next fall.
Republicans are calling the 1,924-page bill a pork-filled mess and accusing Democrats of trying to jam it through Congress with minimal debate and little if any opportunity to make changes. Some GOP senators voiced outrage but made no effort to dump their own earmarks from the legislation, which has been in the works for months.
The earmark-free approach promised by 39 Republicans and Democrats was adopted well after work got underway on the bill that's coming to the Senate floor Thursday and has been endorsed by President Barack Obama. But with just a few exceptions, senators have not paired their opposition with requests to strip their earmarks from the bill.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, for example, said he's unalterably opposed to the bill, but it still has $85 million of his earmarks, including $18 million for a railhead upgrade at Fort Knox and a $3 million infantry squad battle course at Fort Campbell. All told, McConnell obtained 38 earmarks, according to a database put together by the office of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
The bill and accompanying reports contain 6,714 earmarks costing $8.3 billion, Coburn says. Twenty-three Republicans and four Democrats who voted for the immediate ban on earmarks claimed them in the bill.
At a news conference Wednesday, Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, assaulted the bill -- but in turn came under attack from reporters questioning why they have earmarks in the measure.
The Obama administration made it clear he'll accept the earmark-laden Senate bill over a less expensive, earmark-free version passed by the House last week.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates endorsed the Senate version and its $678 billion for the Pentagon and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about $19 billion more than in the House bill.
Thune backed 17 earmarks for $23 million, including $500,000 for a terminal expansion at the Rapid City airport and $1 million for improvements to state route 73 in Jackson County.
"I support those projects, but I don't support this bill," Thune said.
Cornyn obtained numerous earmarks as well, including $110,000 for the Texas State Technical College and $500,000 for a wastewater plant in Edinburg, Texas.
"I'm going to vote against this bill and refuse all those earmarks," Cornyn said. So long as they remain in the bill, however, Cornyn's earmarks are going ahead. His requests were made in the spring.
Critics pounced on what they deemed double-talk.
"Many of the same senators who are criticizing ... earmarks have earmarks in the bill," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who obtained $89 million worth of them. "That is the height of hypocrisy -- to stand up and request an earmark and then fold your arms and piously announce, 'I'm against earmarks.'"
Such criticism, however, also could be directed at Colorado Democrats Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, who voted for the earmark ban two weeks ago. The Senate bill includes a $700,000 earmark sought by Bennet for a new water line for Trinidad, Colo., and $500,000 for a wastewater project in Idaho Springs, Colo., requested by Udall.
Obama didn't escape the criticism. Just a month ago, the president said the nation can't afford "wasteful earmark spending."
House Republicans who swore off earmarks earlier this year were sharply critical of the president.
"This is a 'Christmas tree' our nation simply can't afford," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who in January will succeed Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California as the House's speaker. "The ball is in President Obama's court."
Since the Senate voted 56-39 on Nov. 30 to kill a Coburn proposal to ban earmarks, only Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, actually wrote to the Appropriations Committee to withdraw his pet spending items.
"I had a number of requests in and I voted for the moratorium and I thought in all honesty, I need to withdraw my requests," said Hatch, "And I did." Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., withdrew his earmark requests last April after an earlier vote on banning the practice.
The most commonly accepted definition of an earmark is a project not requested by the president but inserted into one of the annual spending bills.
Defenders of earmarks point out the money for congressional earmarks represents a tiny portion of the bill -- less than 1 percent -- and that lawmakers know the needs of their states and congressional districts better than administration bureaucrats. And just because something is in the president's budget doesn't mean that it's not pork.
"If you look up earmark in the dictionary, it means 'to designate or set aside.' It is not 'in addition to,"' said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah. "If the Congress does not exercise its constitutional authority to designate where the funds will go, the administration will usurp that authority and you will get every bit as much pork barrel spending."
Such arguments, however, have been drowned out by protests from tea party activists and other opponents of the projects, who make fun of earmarks like $100,000 obtained by Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., to renovate the Edgar Allan Poe museum in the Bronx, a cottage where the poet lived for the final three years of his life.
Other senators with earmarks in the bill after voting last month to ban them include Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; Richard Burr, R-N.C.; Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas; Bill Nelson, D-Fla.; and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Even avid earmarker Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee -- who obtained almost 300 earmarks totaling more than $500 million -- hasn't explicitly come out in support of the bill. He's widely expected to vote with Democrats later this week to advance it.
So is Ohio Republican George Voinovich, who's responsible, along with Democratic homestate colleague Sherrod Brown, for 77 earmarks totaling $94 million.