In de­fense of pork: Democrats put a friendly face on earmarks

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY S.A. MILLER

Capi­tol Hill’s top Democrats are mak­ing a full-throated ef­fort to re­brand earmarks as good gov­ern­ment, not a dirty word syn­ony­mous with pork-bar­rel high jinks.

With Pres­i­dent Obama’s vow to clamp down on earmarks putting pres­sure on law­mak­ers to change their ways, con­gres­sional leaders have set out to ed­u­cate vot­ers about why they think Congress should di­rect dol­lars to dis­tricts or states for spe­cific pet projects.

“That there is some­thing in- her­ently evil, wicked or crim­i­nal or wrong with [earmarks], it’s just not the case,” said Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illi­nois Demo­crat, not­ing that he ear­marked mil­lions of dol­lars in the pend­ing om­nibus spending bill for what he said were wor­thy projects in his home state.

Mr. Durbin said law­mak­ers’ pet projects are listed in the bill and ex­posed to pub­lic scru­tiny, and that mem­bers of Congress know how to best spend tax­payer dol­lars in their dis­tricts and states.

“Oth­er­wise, what hap­pens? We give the money to the agency down­town and they de­cide where to spend it,” Mr. Durbin said on the Se­nate floor. “It isn’t as if the money won’t be spent. Oh, it will be spent. But it may not be spent as ef­fec­tively or for projects that are as valu­able.”

The re­frain has been the same from other top Democrats, whether from Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid of Ne­vada or House Ma­jor­ity Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Mary­land. Be­sides tout­ing the mer­its of earmarks, th­ese Democrats balked at Mr. Obama’s an­nounce­ment two weeks ago of a plan to reel in pork-bar­rel spending.

Both Mr. Reid and Mr. Hoyer made clear that they thought it was out of Mr. Obama’s con­sti­tu­tional ju­ris­dic­tion.

But the “power of the purse” ar­gu­ment does not be­long only to con­gres­sional Democrats.

When Repub­li­cans ran both cham­bers, House Ma­jor­ity Leader Tom De­Lay of Texas and his col­leagues ar­gued just as staunchly that they had both a con­sti­tu­tional right to di­rect spending and the knowl­edge of which projects in their dis­tricts and states are most wor­thy.

But earmarks “don’t go to the most crit­i­cal and most im­por­tant projects across the coun­try” be­cause they by­pass the com­mit­tee process and don’t com­pete for funds with other pri­or­i­ties, said Steve El­lis, vice pres­i­dent of the non­par­ti­san watch­dog group Tax­pay­ers for Com­mon Sense.

If the projects were in any way awarded on merit, then the lion’s share of pork wouldn’t be go­ing to the most pow­er­ful and se­nior mem­bers of Congress, Mr. El­lis said.

“Earmarks are the grease of the pay-to-play sys­tem where the pow­er­ful and the po­lit­i­cally con-

nected win out,” he said.

Con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans, de­ter mined to re­vive their im­age as the party of fis­cal re­straint, helped push the ear- mark is­sue to the fore as they ham­mered a $410 bil­lion catchall spending bill for 2009 that has about $12.8 bil­lion worth of earmarks. How­ever, about 40 per­cent of the earmarks in the om­nibus bill were re­quested by Repub­li­cans.

The roughly 9,000 pet projects in the spending pack­age, known as an om­nibus bill, in­clude $951,500 for a “sus­tain­able Las Ve­gas” s t u d y, $238,000 for the Poly­ne­sian Voy­ag­ing So­ci­ety in Honolulu, $190,000 for the Buf­falo Bill His­tor ical Cen­ter in Cody, Wyo., and $24,000 for a pro­gram in Penn­syl­va­nia to pro­mote sex­ual ab­sti­nence.

Sen. John McCain, an Ari­zona Repub­li­can who has swor n off spon­sor ing earmarks, said they are “evil” be­cause they have per­verted the ap­pro­pri­a­tions process.

He said earmarks were rare 25 years ago, but now law­mak­ers dole out bil­lions of dol­lars each year at whim.

“The evil grew and grew, like any other evil,” Mr. McCain said. “While the Amer­i­can peo­ple are suf­fer ing un­der the worst re­ces­sion since the Great De­pres­sion, we here in Congress not only are do­ing busi­ness as usual, we are wast­ing the tax­pay­ers’ money at an in­cred­i­ble rate.”

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