Blue Dogs at risk get help, $200M

House Democratic leaders have directed tens of millions of dollars in federal funds to the districts of vulnerable incumbents, including many conservative Blue Dogs who typically stress fiscal restraint.

Nearly $200 million worth of earmarks has gone to members of the Blue Dog Coalition — including $150 million in the military construction appropriations bill and over $44 million in the transportation bill.

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The biggest winner so far is Rep. Bobby Bright (Ala.), who comes from a district with a heavy Republican advantage in voter registration. He won eight earmarks in the two spending bills worth more than $76 million.

 The bulk went for items that President Obama also requested, such as $29 million for an aviation component maintenance shop and $36 million for an aviation maintenance facility in Fort Rucker, Ala. But $810,000 went for an air traffic control tower at Maxwell Air Force Base the administration did not ask for.

Bright said the projects he supported were thoroughly vetted and considered critical for his district.

 “Supporting worthwhile projects for your district and advocating for deficit reduction are not mutually exclusive,” Bright told The Hill.  

“I would challenge anyone to make the case that securing crucial funding for vital military installations in my district is not a worthwhile use of taxpayer dollars. Even though earmarks represent a very small fraction of federal spending, I scrutinize each one very seriously and am fiscally responsible with my requests.”

Republicans and a spending watchdog group criticized the earmarks, saying that self-described budget hawks like the Blue Dogs should shun federal funds specifically set aside for their districts.

 Earlier in the year, the Blue Dog Coalition proposed a 2 percent cut in discretionary spending for each of the next three years.

 “The earmark system is a symbol of a broken Washington,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Republican Leader John Boehner (Ohio). “Anyone who is serious about fiscal discipline should join House Republicans in freezing earmarks and pushing for real reform.”

 Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that tracks federal spending and compiled the earmarks in a spreadsheet, faulted Blue Dogs for chasing earmarks.  

“Fiscal responsibility needs to start at home,” Ellis said. “It is difficult for them to wag the finger with one hand and have the other hand out for millions of dollars’ worth of earmarks. It undercuts your credibility.”

In an effort to crack down on the practice, House Democrats earlier this year barred earmarks directed to for-profit companies; others are still allowed. Republicans put in place a moratorium on all earmarks.

 Some Blue Dogs, such as Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), do not request earmarks. But many others do, and with good success.

 Recipients include Reps. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) and Zack Space (D-Ohio), all of whom come from districts with a Republican voter registration advantage.

 Herseth Sandlin won $3.6 million that Obama did not request for aircraft maintenance shops, and Hill got $1.25 million for interstate maintenance and bus facilities. They are both members of the House Democratic Blue Dog leadership team.

 The two spending bills passed the House last week; the military construction bill passed on an overwhelming bipartisan vote, but the transportation bill drew only 14 GOP votes.

 Many lawmakers argue they know their districts better than bureaucrats in Washington who would be left to decide how to spend military construction and transportation funds if not directed by Congress.

 Republican Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), a critic of earmarks, dismissed that argument. He noted that a disproportionate amount of earmarked funds go to the districts of Democratic leaders, members of the Appropriations Committee and lawmakers in tough races.

 “Why is it that only vulnerable Democrats know their districts better than people in the administration?” he said. “It’s an artifice.”

 Blue Dogs such as Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.), who is in a toss-up race, argue that the projects help their constituents and do not add to the deficit. They note the funds come from a pot of money already set aside for discretionary spending.  

Kratovil, who sponsored the Blue Dog legislation that would cut spending by 2 percent each year, collected four earmarks worth more than $5 million in the two recently passed spending bills.

 His spokesman dismissed GOP criticism.  “Rep. Kratovil’s Spending Reduction Act would finally require Congress to make tough decisions about which priorities deserve funding and which should be cut,” said spokesman Kevin Lawlor.

 “Given our fiscal outlook, he feels we can no longer avoid these tough decisions,” Lawlor added. “He has taken the same approach to the appropriations process, submitting requests only for the projects he believes are the most important priorities for the 1st district.”

 Flake said that while earmarks come from money already set aside, he believes they contribute to the deficit by winning support for more spending.

 “Lawmakers know that these earmarks grease the skids for bigger bills,” he said.