Mississippi senators bank big on defense earmarks, eclipsing most Dems

Two Mississippi Republicans scored hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks as part of the Pentagon spending bill, eclipsing most Democrats.

Sens. Thad Cochran, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Roger Wicker, junior senator from Mississippi, scored big in the 2011 Pentagon legislation. Cochran voted against it as part of a larger GOP maneuver to restrain federal spending.

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Cochran secured $211.8 million in earmarks in the defense bill, while Wicker clinched $161 million, according to data from Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), a nonpartisan watchdog organization.

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), secured $195 million in earmarks, second only to Cochran among panel members. Wicker’s earmark total was third-highest; he is not on the appropriations panel.

Cochran and Wicker did not provide comments for this article.

It is customary for the leaders of the Appropriations panel to lead in earmarks, so it is no surprise that Inouye and Cochran were among the leaders this year. Cochran also led with most earmarks in the 2010 Pentagon spending bill, according to TCS. 

All but $9.7 million of the earmarks Wicker received were secured with Cochran’s help. Cochran also shared several of his earmark requests with other senators. 

TCS calculates the number and value of earmarks for each member by counting up how many of the disclosed earmarks have a senator’s name attached. That means that the overall number assigned to each lawmaker includes earmarks requested jointly with other senators. 

The defense appropriations bill is usually one of the most heavily earmarked bills in Congress. For fiscal 2011, Senate appropriators approved $2.6 billion in funding for member-sponsored projects.

While Cochran boosted his earmark numbers this time around, his win also comes with a twist. Cochran and 11 other Republicans voted against reporting the 2011 defense appropriations bill out of committee because the bill would bring discretionary spending beyond the 2010 budget resolution. The Senate GOP is voting no on all 2011 spending bills in the Appropriations Committee. 

The move by Republicans to vote against the bill was mainly symbolic, since the committee had a Democratic majority to vote the bill out of the committee and send it for a full Senate vote. The Senate Appropriations Committee last week approved the 2011 defense-spending bill by a vote of 18-12.

In July, Senate Republicans threatened to oppose the 2011 spending bills if they do not fit within the top-line spending limitations set in a plan previously proposed by Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). The Senate has voted several times on the Sessions-McCaskill proposal, which would save an estimated $26 billion below the president’s budget request.

“We are expressing unanimity of support for adhering to a top-line spending level that acknowledges the fiscal problems facing our nation and simultaneously allows us to meet the nation’s needs,” Cochran said in a statement issued July 13.

Steve Ellis, TCS’s vice president, views Cochran’s maneuver as making a “bigger political point” without risking coveted funds for his home state. 

“When you are not the chairman, you have the luxury of voting against something that you know will pass,” Ellis said. “It is a relatively cynical ploy by Sen. Cochran.” 

Cochran, Wicker and Inouye are not the only senators who scored big in the $669.8 billion defense bill. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, now the senior West Virginia Democrat, secured $99.3 million in earmarks. The late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who died earlier this year, was the most senior Senate appropriator and had a strong reputation for always securing projects for his state. 

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) received $96.6 million for projects, according to TCS’s calculations. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is facing a tough reelection race this year, secured $83.9 million, while Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) scored $83 million in earmark funding. 

The $2.6 billion earmark total in the spending bill is going to make for an interesting negotiation period with House appropriators. House Republicans have banned pork-barrel projects from spending bills, while Democrats have instituted a moratorium on for-profit earmarks. 

The House Appropriations Defense panel approved a defense bill with $1.22 billion in earmarks for nonprofit entities, according to an analysis by The Hill and TCS. For the 2011 defense bill, House appropriators essentially halved the number of earmarks from the previous bill.

Should Congress actually pass the 2011 defense spending bill this year, defense lobbyists who spoke to The Hill said they expected the House to adopt the Senate’s for-profit earmarks despite the limitations set by both the Democratic and Republican leadership.

Walter Alarkon contributed to this report.