With tough election ahead, McCaskill targets earmarks

A high-profile Democratic senator facing a tough reelection fight issued a report Monday that claimed House members circumvented the chamber’s earmarks ban by inserting $834 million in earmarks into the defense authorization bill.

The report is the latest in a series of steps first-term Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) has taken to position herself as an anti-Washington crusader against government fraud and waste.

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McCaskill’s earmarks report comes on the heels of her joining forces with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to call for a permanent earmarks ban, then announcing that Senate leaders didn’t want to vote on it. From her perch as chairwoman of a subcommittee overseeing government contracting, McCaskill took a prominent role investigating misidentified gravesites at Arlington Cemetery.

The freshman lawmaker won by just 2 points in 2006, when she defeated incumbent GOP Sen. Jim Talent, and early polling shows she faces a tough reelection bid. Her vocal opposition to earmarks could help McCaskill run as a deficit hawk and against Congress — and its anemic 9 percent approval rating.

One of McCaskill’s potential Senate challengers, Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), had four amendments included in McCaskill’s list of earmarks.

“These representatives can insist all they want that they don’t do earmarking anymore — but if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” McCaskill said in a statement.

Akin, who faces a primary for the GOP Senate nomination, said his amendments were not earmarks because they were up for competitive bid. He said they did not violate the House earmark rules and were voted on in a transparent way.

Akin spokesman Steve Taylor said McCaskill’s report was politically motivated. 

“Given that she campaigns so vehemently against government spending and earmarks, she may be feeling on the defensive, having voted for the stimulus bill,” he said.

McCaskill has fought against earmarks since she joined the Senate in 2007, and touts that she's never requested an earmark.

Her report also drew the ire of one of its main targets, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who disputed her characterization of amendments to the defense policy bill as earmarks.

McKeon spokesman Claude Chafin turned McCaskill’s argument around and accused her of wasting taxpayer dollars with the study. He said the section of the bill containing the amendments in question was dropped before it went to conference committee, making her report moot.

“We, as point of pride, never take hollow budget authorization into conference, so the whole title was dropped,” Chafin said. “If Sen. McCaskill had been seriously concerned about government waste, why focus on the most transparent process to ever be applied to the defense bill, and why devote countless hours of taxpayer-funded staff time to provisions that didn’t make it past the House?”

Chafin said that McCaskill labeled any increase in spending levels as an earmark, ignoring congressional budget authority to set spending priorities.

McCaskill responded that McKeon’s decision to drop the amendments, which totaled about $700 million, before the bill went to conference committee amounted to an admission they were, in fact, earmarks.

She said House members “boldly flaunted” the earmark ban in the defense policy bill, as 115 of the 225 amendments to the bill were earmarks, according to the report. Among the amendments McCaskill characterized as earmarks, Democrats submitted 75 and Republicans submitted 40.

McCaskill’s report has some similarities to one issued in May by Citizens Against Government Waste, which highlighted 111 provisions in the defense bill, totaling $651.7 million. Of those, 59 were similar to 2010 earmark requests, the advocacy group found.

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McKeon and McCaskill also squabbled back in May over earmarks and the defense authorization bill, when McCaskill first charged that the legislation included earmarks. McCaskill focused on a fund created in the House authorization bill called the Mission Force Enhancement Transfer Fund, which she says was used to offset earmark proposals.

The House Armed Services Committee instructed members that budget requests in the authorization bill could not direct funds to a specific entity or locality, and that the requests had to be offset.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that it’s not always clear-cut whether a project is an earmark or pork. In past years, he said, Congress has sometimes been correct to push its own spending priorities over requests made by the Pentagon.

“Just because it’s introduced through the congressional process does not prove it’s pork,” O’Hanlon said. “They obviously can be wasteful and parochial, but sometimes Congress is right about a defense priority.

“If it’s a weapon, it’s always going to be made somewhere,” he said.

O’Hanlon said one way to determine whether a project qualifies as pork is if it was debated and voted on or quietly added to legislation.

Here, too, McKeon and McCaskill disagree. McKeon’s spokesman said that the amendments had votes and debate in committee and on the House floor, while McCaskill said many were bundled together for votes and cleared with little to no debate.

-- This story was updated at 9:01 p.m.