WASHINGTON—Pressure is growing to help pay for Hurricane Katrina's costs by getting members of Congress to give up the pet spending projects they've inserted into legislation for their states or districts.
But some top lawmakers are decidedly unenthusiastic.
"Kiss my ear!" Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, told a Fairbanks newspaper reporter when asked whether he'd return the $223 million he'd "earmarked" for a bridge in the Alaskan outback. Young is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Earmarks are projects that have neither been requested by the administration nor deemed worthy by a congressional committee. Over the years they've become as prevalent as grease on a machine's gears. The 1991 transportation bill contained 538 earmarks. This year's had 4,373. Last year's catchall appropriations bill, which wrapped together seven of the 13 annual spending bills, contained 8,000 earmarks totaling $10 billion.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, scoffed at the suggestion that he give up his earmarks, saying highway projects in his district contributed to economic growth. One watchdog group estimated DeLay's total earmarks at $114.4 million over five years.
"My earmarks are pretty important to building an economy in that region," DeLay said. "What's good about the highway bill ... is it creates hundreds of thousands of jobs. It is an economic engine that drives the economy."
Still, as pressure grows to reduce Katrina's bite from the federal budget, many lawmakers are being forced to take a second look at their appetites for federal money.
In Bozeman, Mont., a citizens' group petitioned its congressional delegation to rescind the $4 million the city obtained for a parking garage and direct the money instead to Katrina's victims. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., a leading conservative in the House of Representatives, said he'd give up his $16 million in highway-bill earmarks to help pay Katrina's costs.
But the usual refrain in Congress is that "one congressman's `pork' is another's bacon."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who guided $130 million in special projects into the highway bill, said Tuesday that she'd give up her own earmarks to help the devastated region. Later, however, she amended her stance, saying she wouldn't give up a $50 million retrofitting project for the Golden Gate Bridge to protect the span from earthquakes.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., railed against Republicans for inserting special spending projects that he said were "out of control." But when he was asked whether he'd give up his own $16 million in pet projects, Waxman replied: "How about everybody's earmarks? ... If you want to get rid of all the pork barrel projects, I'm for that."
Getting rid of earmarks alone would hardly make up for Katrina spending, however, which may total $200 billion before it's done. Highway bill earmarks total only $24.2 billion over five years. Even if they all were rescinded, that would save only $9.8 billion over five years because much of the money would go to states anyway under complicated allocation formulas.
Katrina's costs, however, clearly are fraying congressional relations, particularly within Republican ranks. Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Budget Director Joshua Bolten told Senate Republicans on Tuesday that the administration will seek more money for Katrina relief and reconstruction in mid-October. Congress already has approved almost $62 billion.
The Katrina discussion, held during a closed-door luncheon in the Capitol, prompted many Republicans to complain that the administration was too eager to spend money on the devastated region without providing adequate financial safeguards and recommending ways to pay the expense.
But several senators said no one recommended giving back his or her earmarks. And when Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., recommended a balanced package of spending cuts and revenue increases, he was met with stony silence.
Asked whether there were any alternative options worth pursuing to pay for Katrina, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., replied: "There aren't any. Everybody's mad."
A list of top earmarks, or "pork" projects, in this year's highway-spending bill compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group, is on the group's Web site at www.taxpayer.net/Transportation/safetealu/states.htm.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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