Old Guard’s Passing Triggers Early Earmark Moratorium

The fiddle player from the dells of West Virginia isn't with us any longer. Nor is Uncle Ted from the great, white north. The "Lion of the Senate" is gone, too. And that's to say nothing of the absence of a scrappy politician from the coal fields of western Pennsylvania.

Searching for a reason why Republicans could incinerate the $1.2 trillion omnibus spending package in the Senate last week? Check out the personnel shift on Capitol Hill over the past two years. You can trace the demise of this bill to the deaths of four Congressional titans in just the past year-and-a-half.

There's a feistier, more-conservative bloc in Congress now. It looks askance at earmarks and abhors profligate government spending. Even those who have been around for a while hear the echoes of November 2 caroming off the marble floors of the U.S. Capitol.

Think they could have scuttled this bill if Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), the longtime chairman of the Appropriations Committee was still around? How about the late-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK)? Stevens lost in 2008, but was known for bringing the bacon home to his adopted state as chair of the Senate Appropriations panel when Republicans were in charge. Certainly the late-Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) wasn't the same master of the appropriations process as Byrd and Stevens. But Kennedy certainly knew how to direct federal dollars back to the Bay State. And then there was the late-Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA), chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Treasury and ethics watchdogs held no greater contempt for any lawmaker than Murtha for his efforts to stuff pet projects into spending bills.

The anti-earmark crowd probably couldn't have executed this maneuver had that Fearsome Foursome still been at the helm of the appropriations process. Of the old appropriations guard, only Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) remains, first elected to the Senate in 1962.

It's a new day for earmarks and spending.

The omnibus legislation would have funded the government through next October. But the parts of the bill garnering the most attention were the $8 billion in earmarks, which make up about one percent of the overall measure.

Earmarks are set-asides where lawmakers designate a particular pot of money be spent on a given project. The earmarks in this bill ranged from a $21.7 million earmark authored by Sens. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) for the Gulf Coast Land-based test facility - to a $500,000 earmark crafted by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) to alleviate traffic congestion near the Bronx Zoo.

Earmarks often originate from the appropriations panels in the House and Senate, which forge the allocations for each federal department and agency. For instance, Cochran is the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Serrano is a senior appropriator in the House.

Defenders of earmarks point to Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution as granting Congress the authority to require federal dollars be spent a certain way. It says "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law."

In other words, earmark supporters believe unelected bureaucrats in the executive branch would decide how to spend money if Congress cedes its power of the purse.

But opponents decry earmarks as "pork barrel" spending or "paybacks" for certain pet projects back in the district. And some lawmakers like Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) argue the system is construed in a way that's biased toward spending. He says that makes it tougher to fillet some of the earmarks.

If anything, the disintegration of support for the bill was one of the few examples in this lame-duck session of Congress that lawmakers heard the message of the voters in November. And House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-OH) used the occasion to indicate things would be different under his watch next year.

"Congress was gearing up for one, last, big spending spree before Christmas," said Boehner, who's never authored an earmark during his 20 years on Capitol Hill. "You might be surprised what you can accomplish when you listen to the American people."

Boehner then touted a moratorium House Republicans imposed on earmarks.

"Earmarks, to many Americans, are a symptom of a broken Washington, and we're not going to have them," Boehner said.

How quickly the tide turned.

The stymied bill contained an $8 million earmark for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate and a $10 million spending directive for the John P. Murtha Foundation.

Opponents of earmarks might say it's kismet things worked out this way, with those earmarks representing emblems of a bygone era.

Of course, it's easy to race through the list of earmarks that sound absurd. The Twitter account of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) exploded last week as he spent several days lambasting a host of earmarks. McCain excoriated his fellow lawmakers for reserving $277,000 for potato pest management in Wisconsin, $413,000 for peanut research in Alabama, $100,000 for the Edgar Allen Poe Cottage Visitor's Center in New York and $300,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii. But many of the lawmakers who requested some of those earmarks can eloquently argue in favor of those earmarks. And are happy to do so.

For instance, Rep. David Price (D-NC) teamed with Reps. Brad Miller (D-NC), GK Butterfield (D-NC) and Bob Etheridge (D-NC) to author a $349,000 earmark to fund swine waste management.

In a bill that critics would decry as laden with pork, some might argue that this earmark certainly takes the bacon. But Price says this is essential. The money helps fund a center at North Carolina State University that studies how to better store hog waste and convert it into fertilizer.

Right now, much animal waste is stored in lagoons. But Price says that's a big problem in North Carolina when hurricanes hit.

"After Hurricane Floyd, the lagoons burst and it spread waste all over the countryside," Price said. "I would defend (the earmark) any time of the week. I've known no critics."

Price also notes that the earmark denotes a public-private partnership with the pork industry, which helps fund the center. He says having some federal money go toward the project makes it more accountable.

And Price says, if it wasn't for the North Carolina delegation, no one would help conduct this research.

"If you leave this to the bureaucrats, there would be no support for this," Price said.

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) feels the same way about $247,000 in money he helped shoehorn into the bill to research methods to produce virus-free grapes back home.

"I'd much rather prefer that the members from Washington state make decisions for Washington state," Larsen said.

Washington is one of the leading wine producing states in the nation. So that's why Reps. Norm Dicks (D-WA) and Jay Inslee (D-WA) joined Larsen to direct funds to a research center at Washington State University which studies viticulture.

"If there are viruses and blights what happens is the grape vines don't produce," Larsen says. "This won't be isolated to one farmer. It could likely happen to any farmer and could wipe out the whole region. This could be devastating to the economy in Washington state."

Larsen notes that $247,000 is less than pocket change when it comes to overall federal spending.

"This little bit of research dollars through public funding combined with industry dollars goes a long way," Larsen said. "That's real stability for communities."

But with no omnibus spending bill, that means no earmarks. And now it looks like the House and Senate will approve a simple spending bill in the coming days to keep the government running through March. Sans earmarks.

In some respects, this is the worst possible outcome for those who authored earmarks. Congress never passed the omnibus bill. So no earmarks ever went through. Yet those behind those set-asides received an earful from earmark opponents, questioning the need for those pet projects.

"This is like cap and trade," groused one Congressional aide. "That bill never became law, yet everyone catches flak for what was in the bill."

The question for 2011 is whether lawmakers will catch flak from their constituents for not crafting earmarks. After all, House Republicans promise an earmark moratorium.

But in many respects, the detonation of the omnibus bill launched that moratorium a few weeks early.