Earmarks are still in demand despite ban

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 26, 2010 

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans are spurning earmarks. Their Republican counterparts in the Senate, including a yet-to-be-sworn-in Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, also are swearing off pet projects.

But the voluntary bans may do little to discourage those seeking federal dollars. Among them: Bill Johnson, the Port of Miami director, who has been lobbying federal officials for $75 million to dredge the port to 50 feet to accommodate large vessels.

“Focused and undeterred,” Johnson said, despite a week of earmark bashing on Capitol Hill. “An appropriation, an earmark, I don’t care what you call it, I call it dollars we need. At the end of the day, we are not going to be deterred. We are going to be assertive. I defy anyone to explain to us how an investment of $75 million, creating new jobs, isn’t in America’s best interest.”

Johnson, who has come to Washington at least once a month to work lawmakers on Capitol Hill, also is pressing various Cabinet officials and the White House in hopes of getting the money in the Obama administration’s budget. He’s had the largest shipping lines write to the White House in support.

Democrats, who remain a majority in the Senate, have made no move to discontinue the practice of earmarking and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who defends their use, pointed to the port project as an example.

“That is huge for Florida, to trade, to jobs, to economic activity, that all those big cargo ships coming through ic activity, that all those big cargo ships coming through the Panama canal come to Florida ports instead of going to Savannah and to Charleston,” Nelson said last week. “Those are the hard realities when we talk about the questions of earmarks.”

Still, Nelson said he’ll file legislation next week to put earmark dollars into extending the homebuyer tax credit that expired earlier this year.

“If my colleagues in Washington are serious about banning earmarks, instead let’s put the money into the pockets of homebuyers,” Nelson said at a speech in Fort Myers.

Rubio, who sought earmarks as a state lawmaker, said last week that he wanted Florida “to be fairly represented in this process.

“On the other hand, I think this country owes $13.5 trillion and growing and we have to deal with that very seriously,” he said. “If we can’t deal with the issue of earmarks, how are we going to deal with $13 trillion?”

Johnson, who said he hasn’t met with Rubio, said he’s still working with Democrats and Republicans in the Florida delegation to see if money for the dredge can’t be found.

“We’ll work with both sides to continue to advocate in a reasonable way to make sure the port of Miami dredge remains on target,” Johnson said.

Critics of earmarks point to projects like the port dredging as a classic example of federal spending gone amok.

“Every port on the East Coast wants to be deeper,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which opposes earmarks, arguing that the money should be allocated not by political clout but on need and merit.

Even ports on the West Coast are looking for money: The Port of Anchorage, Alaska, is in the midst of a $750 million to $800 million expansion project that because of its sheer size is almost certain to require federal help. The port is taking a wait-and-see approach, said former Gov. Bill Sheffield, its director.

Johnson argues the Miami port has already been authorized by Congress and enjoys deep support: the state has chipped in $17.5 million and the county share is $120 million. The county wants the port waters to be 50 feet deep by 2014 to accommodate the super vessels that will be using the Panama Canal.

Critics of earmarks have long argued that the process erodes public confidence in federal spending by allowing powerful lawmakers to determine how money is spent in a small portion of the federal budget. Proponents of such spending say it shouldn’t be up to the White House or federal bureaucrats to make the call.

Although earmarks are only about 1 percent of federal spending and have been under fire for half the decade, Tea Party-affiliated candidates seized on them this election season as a symbol of out-of-control federal spending.

The effort to rein them in began earlier this year when House Democrats decided to ban earmarks to for-profit companies. Republicans responded with a one-year, flat-out ban on earmarks in appropriations bills. They voted last week to continue that ban.

Some Republicans have acknowledged that it may be difficult to avoid some earmarking as they proceed with the next version of a transportation bill that spawned perhaps the most famous earmark, Alaska’s bridge-to-nowhere. Even some lawmakers who signed the pledge to forgo earmarks appear less than committed.

“There are times when crises arise or issues come forth of such importance to Georgia, such as critical support to the port of Savannah, and the nation that I reserve the right to ask Congress and the president to approve funding,” Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss wrote on his website even as he backed the moratorium.

Ellis called the bans a “foot in the door” and noted that earmark spending has declined from a high water mark of $23 billion in 2005 to $15.9 billion in 2010.

The White House has criticized the use of earmarks and Ellis suggested President Barack Obama could decide not to sign any legislation that includes earmarks.

“It could burnish his credentials with a bipartisan approach, at the expense of the Senate Democrats,” Ellis said.

McClatchy Washington bureau reporter Erika Bolstad contributed to this report.

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