Thursday, May 25, 2006

Fiscal Conservatives Heighten Fight Over Pet Projects

The New York Times
Fiscal Conservatives Heighten Fight Over Pet Projects

WASHINGTON, May 24 — A battle for the soul of the Republican Party flared up in Congress this week as fiscal conservatives heightened their attack on pet projects stuffed into spending bills with the consent of House leaders.

Recent scandals have not diminished lawmakers' appetite for such spending, but now they must openly defend their projects on the House floor — a new experience.

The critics took aim at money earmarked for specific projects, locations and institutions — for example, money for research on nematodes or switch grass, or construction of museums, fish hatcheries and sewer lines.

"Over the last decade, we have simply gone hog wild with earmarks," said Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, who led efforts to cut parochial projects from the two spending bills this week. "We do not have enough staff to police this. We are out of control. I am frustrated. So are taxpayers."

But Mr. Flake appeared to make little headway in changing the entrenched culture of Congress, where lawmakers see the allocation of earmarks as part of their job, a prerogative of office.

"Everybody understands the game here," said Representative Henry Bonilla, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the subcommittee that produces the agriculture appropriations bill.

The House and Senate remain far apart on a separate bill to provide money for hurricane relief and the war in Iraq. On Wednesday, Republican leaders pulled the plug on efforts to reach a compromise this week. They promised to resume negotiations when Congress reconvenes after Memorial Day.

Mr. Flake said the money earmarked for home-state projects had driven up federal spending. If a member of Congress gets a small project inserted into a large appropriations bill, he said, the lawmaker cannot vote against the bill, even if it includes wasteful spending on other programs.

"Logrolling reigns supreme," Mr. Flake said. "When you have an earmark in an appropriations bill, you had better not vote against that bill, or you might see your earmark vanish. So it's not just the money for earmarks. It's the money that is leveraged."

The White House has been putting pressure on Congress to curb home-state projects. In recent budgets, President Bush has repeatedly proposed to withhold money from such Congressional earmarks.

Instead of attacking hometown projects, Mr. Bonilla said, fiscal conservatives should focus on government benefit programs. "Anyone who is truly serious should work on entitlement reform," Mr. Bonilla said. "That's where the vast majority of our government funds go."

The House crushed Mr. Flake's efforts to delete items from the agriculture spending bill. He tried unsuccessfully to strip out $229,000 for dairy education in Iowa, $180,000 for hydroponic tomatoes in Ohio, $250,000 for the wine industry in California and $6.4 million for research on wood products in 10 states.

Though they failed to kill earmarked projects on the House floor, fiscal conservatives said they were pleased to have forced the sponsors into the open. Representative Tom Latham, Republican of Iowa, defended dairy education. Representative Marcy Kaptur, Democrat of Ohio, fought for the tomato money as a way to "keep agriculture alive." And Representative Mike Thompson, Democrat of California, said his earmark would highlight the health benefits of wine.

The fiscal conservatives had hoped that Congress would tame its desire for such projects, in view of recent corruption scandals involving former Representative Randy Cunningham, Republican of California, and the lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

"We have one of our former members in jail right now for basically selling earmarks," Mr. Flake said. "He was able to get his earmarks through the legislative process without being challenged. Jack Abramoff reportedly referred to the Appropriations Committee as an 'earmark favor factory.' "

Mr. Bonilla said it was "really bad form" for Mr. Flake to mention the scandals on the House floor.

Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, agreed that "the number of earmarks has gotten grotesquely out of hand." But he added, "I don't think that we need to drag in a reference to an obscene player in the game like Mr. Abramoff."

Lawmakers of both parties rose to the defense of the pet projects.

"Who knows the needs of their constituents better, bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., or the people elected to Congress?" asked Representative Mike Simpson, Republican of Idaho.

Mr. Bonilla said it was foolish to suggest that the government would save money if Congress deleted the directives for specific projects. The money, he said, would simply revert to federal agencies and would be doled out by "career bureaucrats."

Mr. Obey said that veteran lawmakers were usually more knowledgeable than "the anonymous bureaucrats downtown."

The Senate and the House have passed separate bills that would require disclosure of earmarks, together with the names of any lawmakers who requested them. Neither bill has become law.

"These projects may be nickel-and-dime items, considering how much Congress spends every year," Mr. Flake said. "But it's been great to see some of the authors, the sponsors of the earmarks, come to the floor this week. Otherwise, we would not have known that they sponsored this legislation."