Dem earmark ban would still allow a lot of spending to continue

House Democrats’ moratorium on earmarks would not have prevented the Bridge to Nowhere, the Airport for No One, or some of the other recent infamous examples of spending.

Democrats’ new ban on earmarks to for-profit companies is projected to reduce earmarks by at least 1,000. Yet, the ban would only apply to appropriations bills so thousands of earmarks in authorization, tax and tariff, as well as transportation measures would continue unabated under the Democrats’ plan.

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“I support the plan because we have do something about the abuses going on with earmarks,” said Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure committee.

Oberstar, however, said he does not consider money lawmakers specifically designate for transportation construction in the highway bill as earmarks, but instead called them “high-priority projects.”

In all fiscal 2010 measures, for instance, Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) found 9,500 earmarks worth $15.9 billion. The group gives Democrats credit for taking on for-profit earmarks as a first-step to start ridding the system of pay-to-play corruption, but said much more is needed to curb the problem.

“For profit earmarks are ground zero for pay-to-play so it makes sense to rein them in,” said TCS spokesman Steve Ellis.

Still, the Democrats’ moratorium fails to address some of the most recent and egregious scandals related to the earmarking system.

One of the most striking examples is the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, the overpass connecting Ketchikan, Alaska, to Gravina Islands’ 50 residents and the Ketchikan airport. Former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) championed the $223 million earmark, which was cited as a symbol of pork barrel spending during the 2008 presidential campaign. The funds were earmarked in the federal highway bill, not a spending measure, and directed to the state of Alaska, not a for-profit company.

Another earmark that would have survived such a moratorium is the John Murtha Airport, which was ridiculed in the press as the Airport for No One, after reports surfaced that it served just 30 people per day with just 18 flights a week. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who died last month, was one of Congress’s most unapologetic earmarkers. He directed more than $150 million in earmarks to the Johnstown-Cambria Airport Authority for the facility over the last 20 years.

Another example of controversial earmarks the new reform would not touch is a nonprofit defense research center at Pennsylvania State University that collected nearly $250 million in earmarks through Murtha, then channeled a significant portion of the funds to companies that were among Murtha’s campaign supporters.

According to a report in the Washington Post, officials at the center regularly consulted with two “handlers” close to Murtha, one of whom was a lobbyist for the PMA Group, a firm that recently disbanded in the wake of an FBI raid on its offices.

Democrats’ pledge to prevent earmarks from flowing unchecked to for-profit companies also would not have addressed several other high-profile earmark scandals.

For instance, earmarks won by imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff benefited the gambling interests of Native American tribes, not companies. Lawmakers also have faced scrutiny in recent years for earmarking millions to federal highway projects near their or their top campaign contributors’ real estate holdings.

House Republicans prohibition of all earmarks goes much farther, but is being criticized as an election-year gimmick because it only covers this year’s bills. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), a former chairman of the Appropriations panel, is supporting the ban but is also highlighting the fact that it expires after one year.

Senate opposition could stymie real progress this year. Sen. Daniel Inyoue (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the Appropriations panel, and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), have both rejected the House’s earmark moratorium in the Senate.

If the Senate continues to reject calls for a full Congressional moratorium, House members could simply ask senators in their state to request earmarks they want, and the companies wanting them will inevitably start lobbying (and doling out campaign contributions to) senators instead of House members.

Senators, however, are not immune to the shifting winds of political pressure. Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan is trying to position herself to the right of her opponent, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), on fiscal issues by calling for a complete ban on all earmarks. Blunt is a member of the Republican conference, which just swore off all earmarks, but he has requested them and defended them in the past.

Carnahan’s move follows the model set by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a leading fiscal conservative vice in the Senate.

Ellis argues that it’s up to President Barack Obama to force the Senate to give up its addiction to earmarks and force a full ban. Obama pointed out the problem with earmarks in his most recent State of the Union address and called on Congress to reduce earmark abuses and post all earmark request on a single website, a component of House Democrats’ new plan.

“The president has the bully pulpit and has some political capital on the issue,” Ellis said. “I could easily foresee a situation in which he lays down a marker and says he’s going to veto any bill that contains earmarks for for-profit companies.”

An inquiry to the White House press office on earmarks was referred to Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

"The Administration is committed to rigorous accountability and transparency and the President has made his reform principles clear -- fewer earmarks, more transparency, and greater accountability for how tax dollars are spent," said OMB spokesman Tom Gavin. "That’s why we have made public all the earmark data from Fiscal Year 2009, and expect to post the 2010 data within a month. We are committed to ending the old way of doing business, and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability that the American people have every right to expect and demand."

OMB Director Peter Orszag applauded House Democrats’ anti-earmark action and urged the Senate to support it in a blog posting Thursday.

“The president believes that transparency is crucial to improving government, and that efforts like the one put forward by the House will help to avoid having taxpayers dollars being used for sweetheart deals for private companies,” Orszag wrote. “These steps raise the bar on accountability and transparency, and we urge the Senate to take similar steps.”

This story was updated at 4:30 p.m.