Tight races prompt some lawmakers to seek more earmarks

WASHINGTON -- There's nothing like a close election to prod lawmakers to bring home the bacon.

New earmark transparency rules -- requiring lawmakers to post their funding requests online -- show a healthy appetite for the special appropriations among Republicans who scarcely 10 weeks ago derided President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic-stimulus plan as filled with wasteful spending.

All House Republicans voted against the stimulus bill, among them the four GOP members from South Carolina.

Now, among South Carolina's six House members from both parties, two of the top three earmark-seekers are Republicans who had tight races last November -- Reps. Henry Brown and Joe Wilson.

Brown, who described the stimulus bill as "pork-laden," has requested $345.6 million in earmarks in the fiscal 2010 appropriations bills taking shape in Congress.

Only House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat who says lawmakers have a constitutional duty to obtain money for local projects, is seeking more earmarked funding than Brown -- $380.3 million.

Brown sees no contradiction between his anti-stimulus stance and his expanded earmarks total -- more than three times greater than the Hanahan Republican requested in either of the two previous appropriations cycles.

"Somebody's got to vote each one of these earmark requests up or down," Brown said in an interview. "The stimulus came to us in one package. We had no debate. We had no amendments. We had to vote yes or no."

That explanation doesn't hold water for Steve Ellis, an analyst with the anti-spending Taxpayers for Common Sense think tank in Washington.

"It's really hard to talk about being a fiscal conservative in regard to the stimulus, and yet have your hand out for earmarks," Ellis said.

Brown narrowly defeated Democrat Linda Kettner in November.

After four elections in which Brown won by an average of more than 50 percentage points, he bested Kettner by a 52-48 percent margin. His victory ended a bitter campaign in which she accused him of having neglected decaying infrastructure and other needs of his largely coastal 1st District.

Brown denied that his inflated earmark requests -- at a time when the number of overall appropriations earmarks has fallen by a quarter from its 2005 historic high -- are connected to his close election.

"Come on, that has nothing to do with it," Brown said. "It certainly wouldn't be the case that because my race was hard, I'm now going after earmarks. That would be a pretty bad analogy. We've got an obligation to help our constituents, and that's what we do."

Among his big-ticket items, Brown is seeking $36.8 million to start building a veterans' hospital in Charleston and $34.3 million to help replace wastewater ocean pipelines from the port city.

The deadline for senators to send their earmark requests to appropriators and post them online is May 15.

Earmarks were shrouded in secrecy for decades until Sen. Jim DeMint, a Greenville Republican, and other fiscal conservatives started blocking spending measures a few years ago to force their disclosure.

Appropriations bills have identified earmarks' sponsors the last two years. Now, for the first time, new rules require lawmakers to post their earmark requests on their congressional Web sites.

Clyburn has taken the transparency standard a step further: His Web site lists $1.5 billion in requested earmarks from state and local officials -- showing that he has put in for only one-quarter of them.

"Earmarks that I secure are always the result of a request from a local entity that will provide for a demonstrated need," Clyburn said.

Though not as close as Brown's election contest, Wilson also endured the tightest race of his tenure in Congress, defeating Rob Miller by a 54-46 percent margin.

Now, after observing a one-year moratorium on earmark requests, Wilson is requesting $117 million in earmarks.

Wilson's refusal to seek appropriations earmarks last year angered Lexington County officials who'd pleaded for federal roads money to relieve mounting traffic congestion.

Wilson's general election opponent, former Marine Corps Capt. Rob Miller, accused him of putting political ideology over his constituents' needs.

The Lexington Republican says he supports the elimination of earmarks, as demanded by DeMint and Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate.

But with other lawmakers still seeking earmarks, Wilson said he is again pursuing them, based on three criteria: They must "directly affect" residents of his 2nd District; they must "promote national security;" and they must upgrade roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Wilson said the $117.7 million in earmarks he's seeking meet at least two of his criteria.

More than $97 million of Wilson's requested earmarks -- 83 percent of his total -- are for military-related projects, including $22.1 million for Columbia-based FN Manufacturing to continue making a new generation of machine guns.

Wilson, a retired Army National Guard lawyer, noted that his district is home to two major military training installations -- the Parris Island Marine Corps recruit depot near Beaufort and the Army's Fort Jackson outside Columbia.

"My view is -- if it's beneficial to the military, that directly impacts the people I represent," he said.

In its just-released annual "Pig Book," Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington think tank, targets a $9.9 million earmark already obtained in current appropriations by Sen. Lindsey Graham and House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt.

Graham, a Seneca Republican, and Spratt, a York Democrat, secured the money to build a new gym at Shaw Air Force Base, about 35 miles east of Columbia.

Graham, noting that he served at Shaw as an active-duty military lawyer from 1982 to 1984, defended his earmark request.

"Every military family deserves the best we can give them when it comes to on-base facilities," Graham said. "Giving our active-duty members access to gym facilities helps their readiness and their morale. I'll debate this on every street corner in South Carolina.

Graham mocked the Pork Book's suggestion that folks at Shaw work out at the YMCA in nearby Sumter, for a monthly fee of $46.13.

"The YMCA is probably not open at midnight when a lot of these guys go to the gym," Graham said.

Earmarks hunt

New appropriations rules require lawmakers to list their earmark requests on their Web sites. With House appropriations bills taking shape for fiscal 2010, South Carolina's six House members have complied, and their online earmark lists are generally easier to find than those of some other lawmakers. Corresponding Senate appropriation bills are in earlier stages of preparation, with earmark requests due by mid-May. SC House members' requests are listed below in order of total dollar amount.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia

Total: $380.3 million, 72 projects

Transparency: A = 1 computer mouse click

Rep. Henry Brown, R-Hanahan

Total: $345.6 million, 58 projects

Transparency: B = 2 mouse clicks

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Lexington

Total: $117.7 million, 33 projects

Transparency: C = 3 mouse clicks

Rep. John Spratt, D-York

Total: $101.3 million, 70 projects

Transparency: A = 1 mouse click

Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-Westminster

Total: $65.5 million, 28 projects

Transparency: A = 1 mouse click

Rep. Bob Inglis, R-Travelers Rest

Total: $50.4 million, 12 projects

Transparency: C = 2 mouse clicks

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