WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans’ ban on earmarks – money included in a bill by a lawmaker to benefit a home-state project or interest – was short-lived.
Only three days after GOP senators and senators-elect renounced earmarks, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican, got himself a whopping $200 million to settle an Arizona Indian tribe’s water rights claim against the government.
Kyl slipped the measure into a larger bill sought by President Barack Obama and passed by the Senate on Friday to settle claims by black farmers and American Indians against the federal government. Kyl’s office insists the measure is not an earmark, and the House didn’t deem it one when it considered a version earlier this year.
But it meets the know-it-when-you-see-it test, critics say. Under Senate rules, an earmark is a spending item inserted “primarily at the request of a senator” that goes “to an entity, or (is) targeted to a specific state.”
Earmarking allows lawmakers to steer federal spending to pet projects in their states and districts. Earmarks take many forms, including road projects, improvements to home district military bases, sewer projects, economic development projects. A key trait is that they are projects that haven't been sought by the administration in power.
The money for the 15,000-member White Mountain Apache Tribe was one of four tribal water rights claims totaling almost $570 million that was added to the $5 billion-plus bill. Black farmers will get about $1.2 billion to settle claims that the Agriculture Department's local offices discriminated against them in awarding loans and other aid. Another $3.4 billion goes to American Indians who say the Interior Department swindled them out of oil, gas and other royalties.
The House still has to act on the total package, and likely will after Congress reconvenes Nov. 29 for the continuation of a postelection, lame duck session.
Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., also got in on the bargain, adding measures benefiting their states to the black farmers-tribal royalty settlements. The two senators obtained almost $370 million for projects in their states to implement water settlements.
Baucus and Bingaman make no bones about their support for earmarks, but Kyl is a recent convert to the anti-earmark crusade of home state GOP colleague Sen. John McCain, who’s railed against them for years. The Interior Department sought only $56 million for Indian land and water claims in Obama’s proposed budget for this year and no money for Kyl’s project, or those wanted by Baucus and Bingaman.
The $200 million in Kyl’s measure would be used to construct and maintain a drinking water project on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, including a dam, reservoir, treatment plant and delivery pipelines.
The water system is settlement compensation for numerous abuses by the federal government, which included clearing trees and other vegetation from thousands of acres of tribal lands in order to increase runoff into the Salt River, a source of water for the cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa and other communities. The tribe also would waive a half-dozen other claims against the government.