Earmarks ‘airdropped’ for freshmen

More than a fifth of the earmarks added late to three conference reports on House and Senate spending bills were sponsored by either freshmen or those vulnerable to tough reelection battles in 2008.

At least 54 earmarks worth roughly $85 million not originally included in House or Senate spending bills have been added to the conference reports. Freshman House lawmakers or senators in their first terms sponsored 12 of those earmarks.

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In addition, nine earmarks were signed off by senators up for reelection this year, including several who face potentially competitive races. According to the Cook Political Report, House members who face tough reelection battles sponsored six projects.

“It almost seems there was an appeal [for earmarks] after the bill was written,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group that tracks earmarks. He said being seen as vulnerable must have helped lawmakers score earmarks.

The practice of adding earmarks to conference reports, known as “airdropping,” has met with severe criticism from fiscal conservatives in both chambers. Earmarks added late to conference reports are not given full scrutiny by lawmakers, they argue, because typically members are given only a day or so to review the spending bills, which can be hundreds of pages long.

“When you have a conference report that comes with earmarks airdropped into it after that, and you only get that bill just a few hours before you vote on it, then I think it behooves us to slow down a bit and say, ‘What are we doing here?’ ” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in a floor speech last week.

Flake raised points of order against the Defense and Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS) appropriations bills because of the late earmarks, but both efforts failed.

“Looking at what was dropped in, they did not seem to be that necessary or particularly urgent that they could not go through the normal process,” said Matthew Specht, Flake’s spokesman.

Flake raised another point of order against the Transportation appropriations bill for having 21 projects added to its conference report, but it failed Wednesday.

The late scramble for earmarks so far has also favored Democrats, who control the House and Senate. Thirty-six of the 54 projects, contained in the conference reports for the Defense, Transportation and Labor-HHS spending bills, are sponsored only by House Democrats.

Not included in The Hill’s review was the appropriations bill for military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Earmarks also were added late to the conference report on that spending bill. However, unlike in the other bills, those earmarks were dropped in as part of a deal between House Republicans and Democratic appropriators.

Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.), who won election to former Democratic Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald’s seat after she died in April, won more earmarks in the three conference reports than any other lawmaker, according to The Hill’s survey. She scored four earmarks worth a total of $640,000 in the Labor-HHS spending bill last week.

After being briefed that none of Millender-McDonald’s projects had made it into the bill, Richardson was advised by the Appropriations Committee that it would consider her requests due to “uncontrollable circumstances.”

“I assumed the assignment and took immediate efforts to participate in the appropriations process,” Richardson said in a statement.

Other freshman lawmakers who joined this Congress after special elections and appointments earlier this year also won earmarks in the conference reports.

For example, Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), who won election in mid-October, is the sponsor of two earmarks. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), appointed in late June to complete the late GOP Sen. Craig Thomas’s term, won a $1.75 million earmark for Grand Teton National Park’s pathways.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), perhaps the most vulnerable Democratic senator up for reelection next year, is the only Senate co-sponsor of the largest earmark dropped into any of the three conference reports. It’s a $20 million earmark in the Defense appropriations bill’s conference report to fund historically black colleges and universities in Louisiana and other states.

Landrieu’s office, however, said her support for the earmark was normal and that it wasn’t intended to protect her reelection. “It was not an election-year trigger,” said Adam Sharp, Landrieu’s communications director. Sharp noted the senator’s senior position on the Appropriations Committee and said she has fought hard for funds for Louisiana, including $3 billion for a housing recovery program in the defense bill.

Other lawmakers facing tough reelection races next year who won conference report earmarks include Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) and Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas).  

The ability to add earmarks late in the spending process is necessary, argues one appropriations lobbyist whose client found success in having a project added to a conference report this year.

“Things change. You have to have a mechanism to update priorities,” said the lobbyist.

However, new earmark disclosure rules approved in both bodies have made adding earmarks late in conference much more difficult. An earmark must win the support of party leadership and senior members of the appropriations committee and relevant subcommittees to be added in conference, according to the lobbyist.

The appropriations lobbyist pointed out that it’s a longstanding practice to add earmarks late in the process in order to help incumbents who could be vulnerable. “Conference has always been a way of helping threatened and vulnerable members,” he said.

Of course, getting an earmark airdropped into a conference report doesn’t mean the sponsoring lawmaker is home free. President Bush vetoed the Labor-HHS appropriations bill on Tuesday, making earmarks in that bill vulnerable, and has promised to veto other spending bills. Bush did sign the conference report on the defense spending bill.