Despite vows to curb earmarks, Congress loads them in bill

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 15, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Despite vows from many lawmakers to stop stuffing bills with earmarks, those special spending measures for projects back home that add up to billions of dollars, it's still business as usual on Capitol Hill.

As Congress weighs a gigantic $1.2 trillion spending bill for 2011 to tide the country over for a year, littered throughout are millions here for highways, millions there for shore line erosion. And much more.

On his way out the door, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas inserted a big chunk of cash — $40 million — for the planned National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan. The project is a $650 million lab to study foreign animal diseases. Brownback is leaving the Senate this month to become governor of Kansas next year.

"The American people could not have been more clear," Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a longtime foe of earmarking, said this week. "They are tired of wasteful spending . . . And they are tired of massive bills — just like this one — put together behind closed doors, and rammed through the Congress at the last moment so that no one has the opportunity to read them and no one really knows what kind of waste in them."

An analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, had so far found 6,700 earmarks worth more than $8 billion in the proposed 2011 spending bill.

House Minority Leader John Boehner criticized Democrats for including earmarks in the spending bill and called on President Barack Obama to threaten a veto.

Earmarks actually represent less than one-half of one percent of the federal budget. But they've always had their share of critics on and off Capitol Hill because they bypass the normal system of congressional oversight and approval.

Their discovery in the 2011 bill reveals how ingrained the practice remains, even in the wake of the midterm elections typified by angry calls for lower spending from tea party supporters and others, as well as a heightened concern over the deficit.

A lot of lawmakers suddenly got fiscal religion after the election. House and Senate Republicans adopted voluntary bans on earmarks. Even long-time earmarkers like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are now decrying them.

McConnell has said he will oppose the spending bill because it contains earmarks, even his own, to the tune of $86.1 million for 42 projects in Kentucky, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Several top Senate party leaders also have millions of dollars in earmarks in the proposed spending bill. They include Democrats Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader; Patty Murray of Washington; and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. The Republicans include John Thune of South Dakota and John Cornyn of Texas.

"The earmarking process is arbitrary and flawed, and our nation simply can't afford this kind of spending right now," said Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who has refused earmarks since she came to the Senate in 2006. "Anyone who tells you they are opposed to earmarks and concerned about our national debt, but still has earmarks in this bill cannot be taken seriously."

Neither Brownback nor anyone from his office could be reached for comment about the $40 million for the bio-defense lab. A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which would oversee the lab, declined to comment.

Also included in the 2011 bill are more than $10 million in agricultural earmarks from Brownback as well.

Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, who is also leaving the Senate this year, but who has been a leading user of earmarks, has $30 million or more in transportation earmarks in spending bill, among others projects.

Bond Spokeswoman Shana Marchio said Bond has not said yet how he will vote on the bill.

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