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Lawmakers Use Line Items to Fund Projects for Own Districts

August 28, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: It’s a fact that has fiscal conservatives furious. Federal spending has grown more under President Bush than under any other president since Franklin Roosevelt. And just two months before the midterm elections, it’s become a big concern among the Republican majority in Congress.

PAT TOOMEY, Club for Growth: The rank-and-file voters across America are disgusted with the level of spending. And if they don’t show up in big enough numbers to return the Republicans to a majority, it will be because Republicans in Congress let them down.

KWAME HOLMAN: Following his failed bid for the Senate in 2004, former House Republican Pat Toomey became president of Club for Growth, which promotes conservative ideas for economic expansion. Toomey says cluttering spending bills with special projects known as earmarks is not one of them.

PAT TOOMEY: It used to be, back in the early ’90s, in an average year, there would be a few hundred such projects, roughly one per member, on average $2 billion to $3 billion dollars.

It’s just gotten to the point where everybody has gotten very, very greedy. And now there’s 25 or 30 per member. We reached 14,000 earmarks in a recent year, and it’s $29 billion. It’s no longer small change now, $29 billion in one year.

Politicians' response to spending

KWAME HOLMAN: One of those earmarks gained national attention last year. Dubbed by critics "the bridge to nowhere," $223 million was allocated by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens for a bridge to connect one small town to an island of 50 residents.

Then there was Republican Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who was convicted of accepting more than $2 million in bribes in exchange for directing earmarks to certain military contractors. The publicity prompted calls for reform from both Democrats and Republicans.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: It's like any other evil. Unless you eradicate it, it's going to grow.

KWAME HOLMAN: And the president got involved as well, asking Congress to give him a line-item veto.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: It will allow the president to target unnecessary spending that sometimes lawmakers put into large bills.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president got support from a determined group of Republicans, such as Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), Wisconsin: Having this deterrence, having this extra layer of accountability will bring the level of sunshine, transparency and accountability to the spending-and-taxing process in Congress exactly where it is needed the most.

KWAME HOLMAN: But efforts to scale back these targeted spending projects were opposed by powerful House and Senate appropriators who decide where federal money is spent. House Republican Mike Simpson of Idaho is one of them.

REP. MIKE SIMPSON (R), Idaho: In areas we have differences with the president that we want to fund something else rather than what he's recommended, sometimes we will earmark something to say, "Spend this money this way, not another way."

That's an appropriate use; that's setting policy; that's what we do. To suggest that it is -- that just because it's an earmark is waste, I think, is a fantasy.

Targeted spending projects

KWAME HOLMAN: Simpson's house colleague, Jeff Flake of Arizona, disagrees, and he's made it his mission to remove as many earmarks from spending bills as he can.

REP. JEFF FLAKE (R), Arizona: Are we here to serve our country, the best interests of our country, or simply to look out for the interests of the House?

KWAME HOLMAN: Flake's strategy has been to use debate time on the House floor to force sponsors of earmarks to defend them in front of C-SPAN's television audience. For instance...

REP. JEFF FLAKE: Mr. Chairman, my amendment would strike funding for the Bronx Council for marketing local arts initiatives. My staff and I were befuddled as to what the Bronx Council originally was.

KWAME HOLMAN: New York Democrat Jose Serrano represents the Bronx and that $300,000 earmark.

REP. JOSE SERRANO (D), New York: I make no excuses about getting the federal government to earmark dollars into that district. Let me repeat that again: I make no excuses about the fact that I earmark dollars to go in the poorest congressional district in the nation which is situated in the richest city on Earth.

I never saw you get up and complain about the fact that we're building arts facilities in Iraq, that they're building supermarkets in Iraq, that we're promoting basketball in Iraq, they're promoting baseball in Iraq. You haven't said a word. But a couple of hundred thousand dollars to one group of American citizens, that's a problem for you.

KWAME HOLMAN: Serrano won that argument, as more than 80 percent of House members voted to keep his special spending project intact.

But Flake has gone after other projects: $150,000 for the Arthur Avenue Italian food market in New York City...

REP. JEFF FLAKE: I would argue that this is one cannoli the taxpayer doesn't want to take a bite out of.

KWAME HOLMAN: ... $900,000 for a small business initiative at West Virginia's Fairmont State University...

REP. JEFF FLAKE: This earmark is vague in its description, offering no more than a general sketch of the purpose of the funding and making no true oversight -- or making true oversight nearly impossible.

KWAME HOLMAN: ... and $1 million for the Kentucky Tourism Development Association.

REP. JEFF FLAKE: I love traveling, as everyone here does. And I'm all for seeing Kentucky tourism continue to grow. But again here, how do we justify favoring this tourism association and not others?

KWAME HOLMAN: In that case, Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers, a 26-year House veteran on the Appropriations Committee, says Kentucky has every right to benefit from earmarks, just as Flake's state of Arizona has in the past.

REP. HAROLD ROGERS (R), Kentucky: I would support today the earmarks over the years for the Central Arizona Water Project that enabled Arizona to grow and prosper and boom as it is now in providing jobs for people. But I would hope the gentleman would realize there are other parts of the country with much, much smaller needs, but equally as important to the people that live there.

Approving projects

KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout these debates, it has become apparent that, for many members, bringing home special projects during an election year trumps the importance of trimming federal spending. In fact, despite contesting almost 40 individual projects on the floor, Flake hasn't succeeded in stripping even one. That has outraged Pat Toomey.

PAT TOOMEY: This is ridiculous. You know, when Americans discover that that's how they're running things, this is what's going to put the political pressure to change this. And Jeff Flake understands that very well.

This is kind of a long-term project. It's not a matter of getting enough votes this afternoon to get this $2 million pork out of the budget. It's a bigger project of educating the American public so that they can see how their tax dollars are being abused, so that they can demand the kind of reform so that we can get this under control.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, the top three Republican leaders in the House, Hastert, Boehner and Blunt, continue to insist they're being tough on earmarks.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), House Majority Leader: What I'm trying to do is to bring more transparency and more accountability so that the earmarking that is done is an appropriate use of taxpayers' funds.

KWAME HOLMAN: But none of them has cast a single vote in support of Jeff Flake and against any of those pet projects. Idaho's Mike Simpson says the leaders believe as he does, that each member of Congress understands how best to address the needs of his or her district.

REP. MIKE SIMPSON: I spend more time in my state and know better what my state wants and needs, better than any federal bureaucrat back here in Washington, D.C. So, you know, that's an argument that makes sense, because I really truly believe I know my state better.

PAT TOOMEY: It's hard to keep a straight face for that argument. To think that members know their district best and therefore it's a good idea to spend $250 million to build a bridge to an island with 50 people on it, to think that because members know their district, we should be spending federal tax dollars to build and subsidize the Cowgirl Hall of Fame or to build a $50 million indoor tropical rain forest in Iowa, you know, these things are just laughable, if it weren't for the fact that it's real taxpayer dollars being spent on them.

This has nothing to do with members' knowledge of their district. It has everything to do with members who think that these kinds of projects will help them get re-elected, because it will sort of satisfy some constituency that they want to be placating.

KWAME HOLMAN: However, the power of appropriators to approve projects and to do favors is part of the legislative tradition on Capitol Hill, and it's unlikely they'll want to give that up, even amid criticism during an election year.