Without saying 'earmark,' Sens. Boxer, Inhofe solicit requests for projects

The debate over earmarks is far from finished in the Senate, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) signaled in a recent letter to colleagues. 

Boxer and Inhofe have asked senators to submit requests for specific projects in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), a multiyear authorization bill, despite a pledge from President Obama to veto all legislation that includes earmarks. 

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The water resources authorization bill represents rare common ground for Boxer and Inhofe, who clashed during most of the 111th Congress over proposals to cap carbon emissions.

Boxer, the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Inhofe, ranking Republican on the panel, were careful not to include the word “earmark” in their letter, sent Friday.

Instead, they ask colleagues to “provide the committee with specific project and programmatic requests you would like considered for inclusion in this bill,” according to a copy obtained by The Hill.

“We believe Congress has a constitutional role to play in determining spending priorities for the Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works program,” they wrote. “Without congressional input, the administration would be the sole voice in setting water resources priorities.”

The lawmakers, however, note the requests might have to be disclosed under the requirements of Senate Rule 44, which many senators believe defines earmarks.

Rule 44 requires disclosure of congressionally directed spending that recommends budget authority, credit authority or expenditure to an entity or specific state or locality.

But Inhofe argues that earmarks remain undefined.

“One of the questions that will be worked out over the next year is the question of what is an earmark,” said Matt Dempsey, Inhofe’s spokesman. “Sen. Inhofe has been strong in saying that as long as something is authorized and appropriated, it’s not an earmark.”

Inhofe believes earmark restrictions should apply to projects that are dropped into bills without going through the proper authorizing process, and should not prohibit projects in the WRDA, an authorizing bill.

Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that opposes earmarks, rejects Inhofe’s view.

He says projects approved by authorizing committees are no more worthy than projects funded by the Appropriations panel, and accuses the Environment and Public Works Committee of authorizing too many projects without adequate oversight.

“The authorizers haven’t been doing their job and haven’t been keeping a firm hand on the program,” Ellis said.

Ellis noted that the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” project in Alaska was included in a transportation authorization bill. 

He estimates Congress has authorized about $70 billion worth of projects that have yet to be constructed.

A spokeswoman for Boxer did not respond to a request for comment. 

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced earlier this month that he would not include earmarks in the annual spending bills.

“The president has stated unequivocally that he will veto any legislation containing earmarks, and the House will not pass any bills that contain them,” Inouye said. “Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law.”

But other senior Democrats have rejected efforts to apply an earmark moratorium on authorizing bills such as WRDA and defense and transportation authorization legislation. 

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has resisted eliminating earmarks from the defense bill, despite pressure from Republicans.

“Would anyone want to ban Congress from authorizing or appropriating money for a disaster relief? I hope not. It’s going to take some thinking as to how you define ‘earmark,’ ” Levin said in an interview last week.

Levin and other senior Democrats argue behind the scenes that an earmark moratorium should not apply to a request to fund assistance in response to a natural disaster or a request to give the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq additional equipment.

“If a senator requests additional UAVs and they’re only assembled in one state, is that an earmark?” Levin said, in reference to unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Senate Republican Conference adopted a moratorium on earmarks shortly after the midterm election, but Inhofe has long defended senators’ right to direct spending to needs in their states.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has also pushed back against efforts by the president and congressional Republicans to ban earmarks.

Former President George W. Bush vetoed a $23 billion water resources authorization bill in 2007, but the Senate and House voted to override the objection.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an earmark opponent, counted more than 900 earmarks in the 2007 legislation, according to a statement he entered into the Congressional Record.

This story was originally posted at 3:56 p.m. and updated at 7:48 p.m.