The first battle is to define the term

Critics of pork-barrel spending hope Washington’s lobbying scandal will help their long and usually futile campaign to stop lawmakers from directing chunks of the federal budget back to their districts.

But even the campaign’s leaders disagree on which earmarks are pork, which practices should be curtailed and even how to define their terms.

“We don’t call earmarks pork,” said Taxpayers for Common Sense Vice President Keith Ashdown, explaining that the term “has become a four-letter word.” His group decries the process by which earmarks are included, not the worthiness of individual projects, he said.

‘THAT’S WHAT MEMBERS DO’

Generally, earmarks are legislative provisions that target benefits to a particular company, organization or locality. But, as a 2004 Congressional Research Service report noted, “there is not a single specific definition of the term earmark accepted by all practitioners and observers of the appropriations process, nor is there a standard earmark practice across all … regular appropriations bills.”

In many cases, the beneficiary is explicitly named. Thousands of such projects litter annual spending bills. A line item in the fiscal 2006 appropriations conference report on energy and water development, for example, directs the Army Corps of Engineers to spend $11.3 million of its annual allocation on the Dallas Floodway Extension, “including the Cadillac Heights feature.”

That project neatly fits the earmark definition used by the conservative Heritage Foundation, according to budget analyst Brian Riedl.

“Originally, lawmakers would fund government grant programs and then let the federal and state agencies select individual grant recipients through a competitive application process or by formula,” Riedl said in an e-mail.

“Now, Congress actually determines, within the legislation or conference reports, who will receive government grants by ‘earmarking’ grant money to specific recipients.”

Defenders of the practice say that the ubiquitous but nameless “Washington bureaucrat” does not know the needs of a particular area as well as the lawmakers who represent it.

“That’s what members do. … They represent their districts,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said at a press conference last week, even as he was calling for a crackdown on earmarks. “They take cases to Congress and say that ‘we need this’ or ‘I need help here’ or ‘I believe that this issue should move forward.’”

Hastert’s view comports with that of James Madison, who wrote in Federalist No. 58:

“This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”

‘A BASIS FOR EARMARKS’

But many earmarks are far less esoteric than Madison’s prose. During the appropriations process, backbenchers and leaders are able to secure line items ranging from $50,000 injections for home-state museums or community centers to the $50 million Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) once secured for an indoor rain forest. Leaders and committee chairmen tend to reserve big-ticket items for themselves but spread smaller goodies far and wide.

Hastert, like other congressional leaders, knows earmarks attract votes to controversial bills; they lubricate lawmaking. The allure of an earmark — and the threat of its exclusion — helps leaders enforce voting discipline.

“We’ve developed a culture, unfortunately, over a number of years where incoming freshmen are conditioned to believe that this is the only way to get reelected,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former Senate majority leader, said last week that he disagrees with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is trying to move legislation to reduce earmarks.

“There is a basis for earmarks,” Lott said. But, he conceded, “I do think it’s gotten out of control.”

Most foes of pork focus on named projects because they are easy to identify.

Flake introduced a bill last April aimed at enhancing transparency in appropriations. The measure would force earmarks to be enumerated in bill language, not just the accompanying reports — a requirement that parallels the McCain bill — and make it tougher for party leaders to waive House rules governing the consideration of conference reports.

Flake’s bill takes a shot at defining an “earmark” as “a provision that specifies the identity of an entity to receive assistance and the amount of the assistance.” The next line excludes federal agencies from the term “entity.”

THE UNNAMED BENEFICIARY

But Flake concedes his legislation has loopholes. It is solely focused on appropriations bills and does not address provisions that avoid mentioning the sum of money or the identity of the beneficiary.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who attracted scorn with earmarks for home-state bridges in last year’s highway reauthorization, secured $70 million over four years for the Alaska Railroad by altering the terms under which it receives mass-transit subsidies. The tightly tailored provision, tucked into a “technical amendments” section and virtually indecipherable without context, contained no dollar figures and did not appear in a spending bill. Few lawmakers were aware of the language.

But Young’s amendment does not meet most definitions of an “earmark.”

A provision in the fiscal 2006 labor-health and human services-education spending bill that would give the casino-rich Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians money for cultural development grants requires a payout of no less than $2 million. It is not clear whether Flake’s legislation would apply to earmarks with spending floors.

Lawmakers who hope to hide their handiwork often describe in painstaking detail how they would like money to be spent without naming a recipient.

A pair of back-to-back carve-outs in the fiscal 2006 Pentagon budget illustrate the different means by which beneficiaries are identified.

The first provides $500,000 for “Outdoor Odyssey, Roaring Run, Pennsylvania,” in the home district of the top Democratic defense appropriator in the House, John Murtha. The second shells out $4.25 million “for contractor support to coordinate a wind test demonstration project on an Air Force installation in the United States market and to execute the renewable energy purchasing plan.”

A Murtha press release from June 2005 identifies the recipient as Gamesa, a Spanish energy company with a manufacturing plant due to open in Johnstown, Pa., this year. “I generally would still not count that as an earmark, even though it has a similar effect, because it is such a gray area of how specific is too specific when setting eligibility criteria,” Riedl said. “I obviously oppose those provisions, but I would not classify them the same as spending earmarks that actually list the name.”

Riedl notes that provisions worded to avoid naming the beneficiary are common in tax bills. That may be why many Republican spending hawks seldom mention tax pork.

Flake said that just reducing the easy-to-read earmarks in spending bills would be progress.

“This would sure be a victory if we could deal with the appropriations,” Flake said. “Earmarks have become the currency of corruption, and you saw that in the Cunningham case.”

Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) resigned from the House late last year after admitting to taking bribes to steer defense dollars toward his supporters.

That scandal and another bribery probe involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff have turned the once-arcane “earmark” into a household word.

“People use it in different ways,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “However this kind of spending can gain publicity and raise objections, we don’t care what it’s called.”

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