WASHINGTON Jan 15 Earmarks may be a thing of
the past for Congress, but lawmakers still tout their ability to
deliver the bacon through a $1.1 trillion federal spending bill
that won passage in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The 1,582-page bill is officially free of the spending for
pet projects that spurred public outrage and were banned in 2010
after Republicans won control of the House of Representatives.
But with November congressional elections looming, lawmakers
from both parties are promoting their roles in shaping the
legislation in ways that will improve life back home. The bill,
which funds wide swaths of the U.S. government, is expected to
pass the Senate by the end of the week.
Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas said in a press
release that he helped win $404 million for a home-state
facility to study foreign animal disease outbreaks. He also
noted that the bill would create jobs by funding an Air Force
base expansion in the state.
Republican Rep. Mike Simpson highlighted spending increases
he secured for a nuclear-research facility in his Idaho
Three Democratic House members from the San Diego region -
Scott Peters, Susan Davis and Juan Vargas - said the bill pays
for more traffic lanes at a busy Mexican border checkpoint.
Those projects bear little similarity to widely ridiculed
historic earmarks like the Teapot museum in North Carolina or
the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska, which came to symbolize
wasteful government spending.
Although current spending provisions are not labeled as
earmarks, "they're earmark-ish, they're earmark-esque," said
Steve Ellis, an analyst at the watchdog group Taxpayers for
Simpson, for example, influences nuclear program spending as
head of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee.
The final bill increases spending for the Idaho National
Laboratory, a nuclear-research facility in Simpson's district,
by at least $24 million over the administration's request. It
also adds another $22 million for clean-up of his state's
contaminated nuclear-energy and weapons testing sites.
A Simpson spokeswoman called the spending appropriate for a
vital federal facility.
"The Idaho National Laboratory is a federally owned,
federally funded national laboratory dedicated to energy
research and national security, so of course it received
funding," Simpson spokeswoman Nikki Watts said.
Staffers for Moran and Peters said projects they championed
could not be classified as earmarks because they originated with
the Obama administration, not with Congress.
"These projects are about as far from earmarks as you can
get," said Moran spokeswoman Garrette Silverman.
Not every benefit in the bill entails a spending hike.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who as chairman
of the Appropriations Committee led negotiations on the bill,
said in a press release that it would help her state's
struggling seafood industry by bringing in more foreign workers
to pick crabs and shuck oysters during harvest time.
Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and Republican Rep.
Bill Cassidy, who hopes to unseat Landrieu in November, both
touted the bill's inclusion of a one-year delay to a planned
flood-insurance premium for state homeowners.
Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano added a provision to delay
plans by the cash-strapped Postal Service to sell historic post
office buildings - a priority in his Bronx, New York, district,
where residents face the potential loss of a landmark building
filled with Depression-era murals.
Serrano said his rider is not an earmark because it does not
involve spending and also would apply to historic Post Office
He said earmarking once helped out local interests that
otherwise could not navigate the federal bureaucracy.
"It gave a member of Congress who knows his or her community
best an opportunity to bring dollars to local originations that
ordinarily would not get a cent from the federal government
because they don't have the contacts," he said in an interview.
Some analysts say the earmark ban has contributed to recent
fiscal crises, giving lawmakers fewer incentives to pass
Besides, there is nothing wrong with protecting local
interests, said Sean Kelly, a political science professor at
California State University Channel Islands who studies the
federal budgeting process.
"This is members of Congress doing what they're supposed to
do, which is advocating for their programs, for their districts.
That's what the game is about," he said.
Some Republicans are beginning to question their party's
rigid stance on earmarks. Texas Republican Reps. John Carter and
John Culberson, who hold senior positions on the House
Appropriations Committee, have said recently that the earmark
ban shifted too much spending control to the Obama
But House Speaker John Boehner said the ban has helped
Republicans rein in spending.
"Republicans have listened to the American people and kept
their promise to end business as usual in Washington," Boehner's
Serrano said the significance of earmarks had been
"I remember once they attacked a cheese museum in Wisconsin.
That's an easy one, because it sounds funny, but cheese is very
important to Wisconsin, and it's been a part of their culture
for a long time," he said. "What's important to one state or one
member of Congress may not sound that important to a reporter
from another place."