Most RSC members enjoy pork

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) is one of the House’s harshest critics of pork-barrel spending. A member of the conservative Republican Study Committee, he was one of 20 lawmakers who voted 19 times in May and June to strike earmarks from appropriations bills. He refers to himself as Tom “Pork Buster” Feeney.

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) is one of the House’s harshest critics of pork-barrel spending. A member of the conservative Republican Study Committee, he was one of 20 lawmakers who voted 19 times in May and June to strike earmarks from appropriations bills. He refers to himself as Tom “Pork Buster” Feeney.

But Feeney’s antipathy toward lawmakers’ pet projects has not extended into his own district, which is due to receive $500,000 in earmarks in the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill, including $250,000 for the Arnold Palmer Hospital in Orlando.

While House conservatives voted repeatedly to cut earmarks from House appropriations bills this year, most of them were busy lining up millions of dollars for their own districts, according to The Hill’s review of 1,810 parochial line items in the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill and a voting scorecard compiled by the Club for Growth.

“Lawmakers give lip service to eliminating earmarks but don’t want to unilaterally disarm,” said Brian Riedl, a federal budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “That’s the mentality that guarantees the earmarks will never go away.”

“I’m not going to go out of my way to punish my constituents ... because I’m a pain in the rear end of the appropriators,” Feeney said. He said he would like to see a restructuring of the earmark process. “If you can’t reform it,” he said, “I would probably vote to abolish it.”

In all, 93 members of the Republican Study Committee would get at least $95 million in Labor-HHS earmarks. Sixteen politically vulnerable members of the RSC did particularly well, hauling in more than $26 million. Among them, Reps. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) and J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) secured more than $1 million apiece while voting for all 19 of Rep. Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) amendments striking projects from other spending measures.

Ohio Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, whose Cincinnati district would get $2.5 million, voted with Flake 18 times.

Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) is directing three earmarks worth $900,000 to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and another $650,000 to projects in Fort Collins and Greeley. Musgrave voted with Flake 15 times, according to the Club for Growth.

“I’ve never said we should do away with earmarks,” said Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J), whose Manhattan-commuter district is in line to receive more than $1 million for colleges and hospitals. “I’m glad I’m getting them.”

Garrett said he favors greater transparency.

Chocola offered support for an earmark-reform bill that is scheduled for consideration this week in the House. As for his own earmarks, he is prepared to defend them.

“I’m happy to go down to the floor,” he said.

But that’s not unusual, according to lawmakers and other observers of the appropriations process. Members of Congress are usually quick to take credit when they send money to their districts.

“They view them as crucial to their own elections,” said Jim Dyer, a former House Appropriations staff director who is now a lobbyist at Clark and Weinstock.

That leaves Dyer and others wondering why there is such a push to change the system.

“I don’t know what it is they have a problem with,” Dyer said. “There’s not a whole lot of clarity out of the critics about what it is they want.”

Indeed, some earmark-reform backers focus on transparency issues while others say they want to crack down on the number of earmarks, their average size, the amount of money devoted to them or the manner in which they are distributed to lawmakers.

There is a small set of RSC members who have put their money — or at least their constituents’ money — where their mouths are.

The districts of eight RSC members would get nothing. In addition to Flake, who has stopped seeking earmarks, Republican Texas Reps. Kevin Brady, Sam Johnson, Mac Thornberry and Jeb Hensarling, as well as Mark Green and Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Rep. John Shadegg (Ariz.) would not get money in the Labor-HHS bill.

Rep. Mike Pence, chairman of the RSC, earmarked $500,000 for Indiana’s 6th District — $200,000 apiece for Ball State University and Madison Community College and $100,000 for Ivy Tech Community College. Ivy Tech campuses would get $3 million from the Indiana delegation.

But Flake was in no mood to take shots at conservative colleagues who ask for district-specific projects during an interview on Friday.

“I don’t begrudge anyone for saying this the way the game is played and I feel like I have to play it,” he said. “I don’t expect people to take the position I’ve taken.”

The RSC has been the driving force behind the House’s earmark-reform legislation. The measure, aimed at requiring committees to identify the sponsors of projects intended to aid specific beneficiaries, is controversial, and it would not necessarily reduce the size or scope of earmarks.

Anti-earmark fervor has been fueled by massive projects, such as Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere” in last year’s highway bill, and a bribery scandal involving former House appropriator Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).

Groups on the right and left have called on Congress to increase transparency in earmarking. Though the RSC accounts for the bulk of Flake’s support on floor amendments, its members are not his only base.

Democrats Melissa Bean (Ill.) and Jim Cooper (Tenn.) voted with Flake all 19 times, as did 17 Republicans. Bean secured $200,000 for a senior center for adults with disabilities in her district and Cooper’s district would get $550,000 for medical facilities under the bill. Just more than one-third of the members voted with Flake on at least one project-stripping amendment.

Bean spokesman, Brian Herman said, “Congresswoman Bean voted for Congressman Flake’s amendments because they would have cut spending on clearly wasteful projects.  Congresswoman Bean has co-sponsored legislation to fundamentally reform the earmark process by exposing this spending to the entire House instead of allowing projects to be quietly inserted at the last minute.  She would certainly openly encourage all of her colleagues to support funding for an organization like the Pioneer Center, which provides essential services for disabled seniors in the community.”

Analysis
The politics of earmark reform

House Republican leaders hope they can smother the political inferno sparked by controversial earmarking with a bill intended to shine sunlight on narrowly targeted provisions in appropriations, authorizations and tax bills. They also hope that by passing an earmark-reform measure, they will motivate conservative-base voters to go to the polls in what is shaping up to be a tough election year.

Now that comprehensive lobbying reform is unlikely to pass this year, House Republicans are seeking to pass a smaller bill targeting the use of earmarks.

The measure’s primary legislative aim is to clarify which lawmakers request which special provisions. As appropriators like to point out, most members already send out press releases to announce what goodies they have secured for the constituents in their home districts. But not every project is claimed — and some are claimed by more than one lawmaker. Everyone has a different definition as to what constitutes an earmark — and, more to the point, what constitutes an egregious earmark.

For some, it is public funding for wealthy private entities like Carnegie Hall, for others it is a provision that benefits a campaign donor and for others it may be a massive public-works project such as the Alaskan bridge that caused so much consternation during consideration of last year’s highway bill.

Often, slight tweaks to legislative language can be far more expensive to taxpayers — or beneficial to hidden recipients — than a line item sending a few hundred thousand dollars to a single entity. The same highway bill that contained the “bridge to nowhere” also had a 20-word “technical amendment” that would reroute tens of millions of dollars to Alaska for railroad track maintenance.  

The draft earmark-reform bill Republican leaders are circulating would require appropriators to list the sponsors of earmarks for each of the spending bills and allow any lawmaker to raise a point of order against consideration of an appropriations measure that contains unlisted earmarks.

Appropriators are up in arms over the proposed changes for several reasons, not the least of which is the bill’s differing treatment of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and the various authorizing committees.

The bill does nothing to limit the practice of distributing a fairly small share of the money in an appropriations bill to ensure that nearly every member of Congress — and every congressional district — has a tangible stake in seeing the bill pass.

Those who believe that earmarking comes at the expense of agencies that might better decide how to spend the money or who object to it because it impedes the partisan direction of federal spending will be disappointed.

Appropriators and Democrats could form a bloc large enough to block the bill, if both groups chose to oppose it. Democrats say there’s not much reform in this reform effort, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a top recipient of earmarked funds, has said she would eliminate earmarks altogether if it were up to her.

But it is not up to her — at least not for now.

Conservatives warn that if nothing is done, Republican voters may have little reason to go to the polls and vote for the GOP. If something is done, Republican leaders risk further divisions among their conference.