Bipartisanship a likely casualty of earmark reform

The building momentum for earmark reform could force lawmakers to cut back significantly on their beloved pork projects, and in the process reduce something that is in short supply on Capitol Hill: bipartisanship.

Securing federal money for local projects regularly unites conservatives and liberals from the same or neighboring states, but future funding for earmarks will probably be dramatically cut now that the anti-pork movement, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), has gained traction.

Reps. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) worked together to lock up $36 million in the 2005 transportation reauthorization bill for a highway-widening project. The American Conservative Union gives Pombo a lifetime rating of 97 percent; Tauscher’s is 13.

In 2002, Sens. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) engaged in a bitter campaign for Johnson’s seat. Last July, they held a joint conference call to laud what earmarks they brought home.

Unlike taxes, healthcare and ethics issues, Republicans and Democrats are careful not to criticize each other on earmark funding.

During the months preceding the 2004 elections, House Republicans pulled a blatant political move by placing targeted members with little seniority on the coveted transportation conference committee. House Democrats did not follow suit, instead tapping ranking members of relevant committees to join the conference. Faced with a wide opening to blast their GOP counterparts down the stretch of the heated election season, Democrats offered carefully worded, lukewarm criticism.

The reason: The parties were working well together on the transportation bill and didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize their earmarks.

Bipartisanship is rare in the Texas delegation, especially after Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) helped craft a controversial redistricting plan. But after his state got a 37 percent increase in highway funding last year, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) praised the entire Texas delegation for its efforts.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said the coordination between the parties on earmarking has been a “bad type of bipartisanship.”

Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said, “Members of both sides have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.”

One day after a bitterly partisan vote on the Central America Free Trade Agreement, the House voted 412-8 to pass the highway bill as lawmakers exchanged pleasantries on the floor.

Most lawmakers put aside their philosophical differences and join forces with their political adversaries because most of what they do is aimed at winning the next election: fundraising, gerrymandering their districts and crowing about the local projects they fought for in Washington.

There have been times when earmark reform has attracted partisan fireworks. Republican appropriators in 2003 told Democrats that if they voted against a pending labor, health and education spending bill their earmarks would be removed from the final measure. Such friction on earmarks, however, is rare.

Peter Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union said, “Without the common ground of earmarking, it would make it much more difficult to attain the bipartisanship needed to restrain growth of appropriations.”

Local pressure to bring home the bacon can be intense. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that the enacted highway bill is the “mother of all jobs bills” for states. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) agreed, claiming that the legislation would create “more than 20,000 much-needed jobs in Ohio.” DeWine is facing a difficult reelection race in November.

The Macon Telegraph last summer lauded targeted Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) for delivering federal funds for his district. That kind of praise, political observers say, can go a long way at the polls.

At the recent House Republican retreat in Maryland, Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) said, “The Buffalo News, which is my hometown newspaper, still believes I need to bring home the bacon.”

Many local newspapers, like politicians, argue that the projects in their backyard are not pork. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer in August extolled the state’s legislators for earmarking $220 million for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated section of Washington State Route 99 that runs along the waterfront in Seattle’s industrial district.

The paper suggested in an editorial that a presidential veto of the highway bill would be prudent so that Congress could keep “all or most of the money for the viaduct while cutting other pork.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) was so pleased with the funding level that he compared the accomplishment to winning the Tour de France. He added, “I guess we did the impossible.”

The Pombo-Tauscher highway project led Bob McCleary, a local transportation official, to gush to the San Francisco Chronicle: “I feel like it’s Christmas. It’s twice what we had been led to expect we would get.”

Yet contrary to conventional wisdom, critics of pet projects exist at the local level.

The Omaha World-Herald chided one of its own for bringing home too much. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who could face a tight race in November, helped get federal money to build a parking garage at Creighton University. The Herald credited Nelson for nabbing what it called a gratuity but suggested that securing such projects is a raiding of the federal treasury.

In Colorado, freshman Rep. John Salazar (D) was instrumental in securing a $6.2 million bridge in Glenwood Springs. But other state projects were slated ahead of the bridge, which as been dubbed locally as a “bridge to nowhere” because it did not have a connecting road last summer when the transportation bill passed.

Mick Ireland, chairman of a Colorado committee that evaluates transportation projects, reportedly said he tried in vain to convince Salazar that federal funds were unnecessary.

Intense media scrutiny on another bridge, in Alaska, led to its federal-funding demise. Salazar’s bridge, meanwhile, dodged the national spotlight.

House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) took some heat in the influential Des Moines Reporter after the $286 billion highway bill passed: “Those who remember Nussle as a tough-talking fiscal conservative back in the 1990s might feel a little wistful at the sight of him trumping his ability to bring home the bucks.”

The paper did acknowledge the downside of saying no to pork, noting that such a move could hamper his chances to become the next governor of Iowa.

Jessica Alaimo and David Mikhail contributed to this report.