House and Senate do battle over earmarks added to war funding bill

The bill to fund the war in Afghanistan has set up a clash between the chambers over earmarks, as leaders in the House are trying to crack down on the practice and their Senate colleagues resist.

House Democrats have instituted a permanent ban on earmarks that benefit for-profit companies. House Republicans have pledged to swear off all earmarks, including those that go to public and non-profit projects, for the rest of the year.

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But the top appropriators in the Senate both say they won’t abide the restrictions.

"We'll try not to,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

"We'll look at all the requests that we get and try to make judgments based on what's in the best interests of the country," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

Advocates of the practice of earmarking have said lawmakers shouldn't abdicate every spending decision to the administration and federal agencies, which control the bulk of taxpayer money.

"The administration earmarks money every day, big time," said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), a proficient earmarker. "The Congress has the constitutional power of the purse. I think that the argument should be focused on cutting spending."

The $33 billion war supplemental bill – a traditional vehicle for earmarks – represents the first chance for lawmakers to steer money to specific projects in their districts. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has told Senate leaders that the war money, to be used to support the troop buildup in Afghanistan, must be approved by the end of the month, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he intends to stick to that schedule.

Wicker, Cochran and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) – whose states are dealing with the fallout of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill – each wouldn't rule out seeking earmarks for disaster aid in the upcoming war bill.

 "Obviously something is needed," Cochran said. "You have to deal with the situation, have to be responsive."

Cochran was the biggest sponsor of earmarks in last year's $106 billion war supplemental. Of the nearly $493 million in earmarks in the bill, all but $4.65 million was inserted at the request of Cochran. Cochran, with Wicker, won an earmark for $439 million for the Mississippi Barrier Island Restoration. Cochran and Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) won $49 million in earmarked funds to repair an Army ammunition plant in Mississippi that sustained hurricane damage.

House leaders don't seem eager to force their new bans onto the Senate.

"We have faith the Senate will do the right thing," said Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.).

The office of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the ban would apply only to House GOP members.

House leaders have sought unprecedented restrictions on earmarks in an election year, when both parties have blamed each other for a deficit expected to approach a record $1.5 trillion this year.

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Earmark critics, including Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and fiscal watchdog groups, have argued that allowing lawmakers to steer money for specific projects in their districts and states can lead to a waste of taxpayer dollars and corruption.

Obey and House Democratic leaders put in place the for-profit earmark ban in March, building on efforts in recent years to cut the overall number of earmarks and make the earmarking process more transparent.

The same month, Boehner, who has never requested an earmark, called on House Republicans to go even further and eliminate the practice altogether. Boehner said the move would be one way to begin to stop “the spending spree in Washington that is saddling our children and grandchildren with trillions of dollars in debt."

The bans aren't likely to make a huge dent in the number of earmarks or the expected $1.5 trillion deficit, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

 About $11.1 billion in earmarks was approved for fiscal year 2010, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Of the nearly 9,200 earmarks for 2010, more than 1,000 went to for-profit companies, the House Appropriations Committee has said.

Ellis' group estimates the amount is much higher – nearly $16 billion. That includes money that didn't have a specific sponsor in Congress but was steered to a district or state at the request of a lawmaker.

"I don't think [earmark restrictions] will have a huge effect except for the fact that there'll be pressure to keep it clean and increase scrutiny on the bill," Ellis said.