WASHINGTON – The House Appropriations Committee Thursday approved $153 million in pet projects, rewarding both powerful and not-so-powerful lawmakers alike with 377 cherished "earmarks" for their home districts.
The unusual session was made necessary after Republicans forced Democrats to reverse plans to insert pet projects into bills before House debates rather than add them in closed-door House-Senate talks when it would be too late to challenge them.
Of more pressing importance to lawmakers, however, is that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., have issued an edict cutting the amount of money devoted to earmarks in half. Obey denied all earmarks when passing a wrap-up spending bill earlier this year.
"Many members will be disappointed," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., chairman of a panel responsible for local clean water and sewer grants and national parks projects.
Republicans are especially feeling the pinch. Now that they're in the minority, they only get about 40 percent of the money for projects rather than the 60 percent they enjoyed when controlling Congress. The fact that earmarks are being cut in half doubles the pinch.
Seven-term GOP Rep. Zack Wamp's requests for Environmental Protection Agency water and sewer grants were not granted, though Democrats heeded calls for freshmen lawmakers facing potentially difficult re-election campaigns.
For example, Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., obtained $500,000 for South Bend's sewer systems and homestate colleague Brad Ellsworth won an equal amount for Evansville. Jason Altmire and Christopher Carney, freshman Democrats from Pennsylvania, also won projects.
New rules require the sponsors of earmarks to be identified and certify that they don't have a financial interest in them.
By long-standing tradition, senior lawmakers and members of the Appropriations Committee get more for their districts than rank and file lawmakers. With the explosion of earmarks under GOP control of Congress, however, more and more earmarks went out to the rank and file as a means of rewarding loyalty to GOP leaders and cementing the political standing of lawmakers back home.
Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., chairman of a panel responsible for Small Business Administration grants, resisted the temptation to grab more than his share, instead awarding $231,000 to each of more than 100 Democrats winning earmarks, including himself.
In the bill funding EPA and Forest Service projects, Speaker Pelosi obtained $700,000 for a grant for San Francisco for use in the Lower Mission District while Obey obtained $2 million for a biomass-to-ethanol demonstration project.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., won $129,000 for the Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree Project, an economic development initiative in economically distressed Mitchell County. The money would double retail space available for a gift shop selling products — typically made by former factory workers whose plants have been shuttered — such as Christmas tree ornaments, handmade soaps and pottery.
McHenry is a vocal conservative and burr in the side of Democrats running the House. He's not popular with some Republicans; a senior GOP member of the Appropriations Committee pointed McHenry's earmark out to reporters, calling it "interesting."
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has promised a substantial reduction in earmarks but the free-spending Senate won't go as far as the House as to cut them in half.