July 8th, 2006 12:56 PM
Yet another reason to vote 3rd party
House GOP leaders decry 'pork,' but back it
Helped block curbs on spending bills
By Rick Klein, Boston Globe Staff | July 8, 2006
[tt]WASHINGTON -- Top leaders of the House of Representatives, who last month decried pork-barrel spending while voting to give the president a line-item veto, have helped block 40 attempts this year to remove individual special-interest ``earmark" projects from spending bills, according to a Globe review of voting records.
The three top House leaders -- Speaker J. Dennis Hastert , majority leader John A. Boehner , and majority whip Roy Blunt , all Republicans -- have not cast a single vote against any of the projects that have been challenged by fiscal conservatives on the House floor. One of the projects -- $2.5 million for the Illinois Technology Transition Center -- was sought by Hastert himself and was affirmed quickly on a voice vote.
Among the other earmarks that Hastert, Boehner, and Blunt have supported were $500,000 to renovate a municipal swimming pool in Banning, Calif.; $250,000 for a performing arts center in Plattsburgh, N.Y.; $1 million for a locomotive demonstration in Pennsylvania; $1 million for the Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association; $180,000 for tomato production in Ohio; and $1.4 million in two separate earmarks for Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.
All of the projects were retained in lopsided votes, with only a core group of about 50 fiscal conservatives voting consistently to strike the spending. But House leaders continue to insist they're being tough on earmarks.
Representative Jeff Flake , an Arizona Republican who has led the effort to remove earmarks from spending bills, said the leaders can't credibly claim to be against wasteful spending as long as they support the earmarks.
``It's tough to take seriously that kind of talk when we see these votes," Flake said. ``I'm amazed that people are willing to go on record supporting some of these earmarks. It just shows how addicted we are to this sort of spending."
Flake said he will bring the issue to a head later this month, when a pork-laden bill covering labor, healthcare, and human-services programs comes to the House floor. He has informed House leaders that he will force a vote on each of the more than 1,000 earmarks in that bill unless the sponsors are publicly identified -- a move that would consume days on the House floor and grind other legislative business to a halt.
``I'm guaranteeing a challenge on every earmark that doesn't have a name," Flake said. ``We have to change this system. This is a black eye for all of us."
The reluctance of House leaders to vote against earmarks highlights the difficulty of reforming the system by which members of Congress win projects for their districts, said Representative John B. Shadegg , an Arizona Republican who has joined in Flake's attempts to remove earmarks.
``It does raise the question, are [House leaders] capable of reform?" said Shadegg, whose failed campaign for majority leader earlier this year focused heavily on earmark reform.
Last month, the House passed a bill giving President Bush the ability to veto specific budget items and thereby remove individual pork-barrel projects -- in essence, the same thing that Flake has been trying to do on the House floor.
``It will help make Congress more accountable for the spending that we propose and can clearly help eliminate some wasteful and worthless pork," said Boehner, an Ohio Republican . But the move was largely symbolic: The Senate, as Boehner and other House leaders were aware, is unlikely to approve the line-item veto.
The House also passed a bill that would require public identification of members who request earmarks and make it easier for lawmakers to challenge projects. But the bill is stalled in a House-Senate conference committee, raising questions among watchdog groups about how sincere the reform effort ever was.
``They're trying to spin their way out of the earmark problem," said Keith Ashdown , vice president for policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense. ``It's insulting, because they just believe this is their money to spend."
Ron Bonjean , a Hastert spokesman, said House leaders are allowing the earmarks Flake challenges to survive or be defeated on their own merits.
Boehner, who proudly notes that he has never personally requested or received an earmarked project, said he voted for other members' 40 earmarks out of respect for his colleagues. He added that, as majority leader, he feels a special obligation to support the decisions of the House Appropriations Committee, the panel that determines which earmarks to include in spending bills.
``What some people think are pork-barrel projects, others think are very worthy projects in their districts," said Boehner. ``As the majority leader, my job is to be supportive of our committee chairmen [and] subcommittee chairmen and the work they do. That basically helps drive my vote on most of those amendments."
Blunt's spokeswoman, Burson Taylor , said the Missouri Republican believes the appropriations committee does a good job determining where money should be directed, and believes that members should be able to set aside money for projects.
``He supports members' prerogative to slate federal dollars for specific programs in their districts," Taylor said.
A spokesman for the appropriations committee, John Scofield , said the committee asked members to begin limiting the number of special requests they make, resulting in a 37 percent drop in the number of earmarks requested this year. Total earmarks represent barely 1 percent of all federal spending on discretionary programs, and committee members are careful to determine that each serves an important purpose, Scofield said.
Still, most members of Congress from both parties love earmarks because they allow them to brag about federal funding they've won for their districts. Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, said he thinks there are too few earmarks in the budget.
``Who is in a better position to know what's good for my district than me? I'm elected to do that," he said. ``I don't have chicken-farm museums in my district, but if I did, I'd defend them."
Capuano said he voted to retain all of the projects targeted by Flake because he'd like to see the projects he seeks accorded similar deference by his colleagues.
``We are equally qualified to know what we need in our districts," he said. ``I have not seen one yet that really makes me puke."
Fiscal conservatives say they haven't been successful in removing any earmarks because many House members are afraid of the enormous power of the appropriations committee, which determines who gets what in the budget.
``There are a lot of members who are afraid to buck the appropriations committee, because they feel they'll lose something -- either an earmark of their own or something else" that they want to pass , said Representative Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican.
In the meantime, Flake is treating his colleagues to some theatrical touches -- and no small amount of heartburn. The always-smiling congressman takes to the House floor to question about 10 earmarks in each spending bill, forcing the projects' sponsors in most cases to own up to them and defend them on C-SPAN.
``This project will be a big boost to the marketability of our manufacturing sector and help with new business activity for the region, which will lead to job retention and -- hopefully -- job creation," Representative Thomas Reynolds of New York, the head of Republicans' House campaign committee, said last week . He was defending a $250,000 earmark for the Tooling and Machining Association in Rochester, N.Y.
A few minutes later, Flake was on the floor again, this time targeting a $300,000 earmark for the Bronx Council on the Arts. He told his colleagues about an upcoming multimedia exhibition supported by the council known as ``Pay to Play," which was inspired by recent congressional scandals.
Flake read from the description of the project on the group's website: ``Please note that special consideration will be given to work that addresses corruption, greed, scandal, cover-ups, failures of democracy, the transparent veneer of public interest that masks rampant self-interest, and other such things."
``How would you define irony?" Flake said. ``We are funding artistic parodies of congressional earmarking with earmarks."
Representative Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat , issued a spirited defense touting the council's record of helping small businesses create jobs in poor neighborhoods -- and struck back at the Arizonan.
``I do not know what you are angry about; the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in the World Series," Serrano said. ``But the fact of life is that the more you get up on these [earmarks], sir, the more I realize that you do not know what you are talking about."
The earmark survived, 343-74. [/tt]