Senate unlikely to follow House’s lead on earmarks

Gautham Nagesh Contributor
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Despite last week’s promise by both parties in the House to cut back on earmarks it doesn’t look like the upper chamber will be joining them in their efforts any time soon. Senate lawmakers are pushing back against the call to reduce spending on lawmakers’ pet projects and without pressure from the White House they are unlikely to change their stance any time soon.

Last week House appropriations committee chairman David Obey of Wisconsin pushed the Democratic caucus to adopt a rule banning all earmarks to for-profit companies. House Republicans responded by adopting a one-year moratorium on all earmarks. Together the moves are projected to reduce the amount spent on earmarks by about $2.5 billion according to Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Critics point out that for-profit companies receive less than 10 percent of all earmarks, but Ellis called the moves “a step in the right direction.”

“One of our recommendations for years has been to eliminate earmarks to for-profit companies,” Ellis said. “We’re not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. It is a smaller percentage of the overall number, but it is a major area of concern for issues surrounding corruption.”

Senate Appropriations chairman Daniel Inouye of Hawaii voiced strong opposition to the plan last week, arguing earmarks are an important tool for lawmakers appropriating federal dollars. Inouye has boasted in the past of his success steering federal dollars back to his state.

“I don’t believe this policy or ceding authority to the executive branch on any spending decision is in the best interests of the Congress or the American people. In my view, it does not make sense to discriminate against for-profit organizations. I am not sure why we should treat for-profit earmarks any differently than non-profit earmarks,” Inouye said.

Earmarks have long been used by lawmakers to steer appropriated funds towards pet projects in their home districts. The overwhelming majority of for-profit companies receiving earmarks are defense contractors working on research, development, testing and evaluation – projects often unlikely to produce immediate benefits for the taxpayer.

Ellis said his organization has opposed earmarks to for-profit companies because of the possibilities for corruption and pay-to-play. Additionally, earmarked projects are exempt from traditional federal procurement regulations and often awarded to companies without any sort of competition. A new rule instituted this year requires that all earmarked projects must be subject to competition, but Ellis said there are ways around it.

“These are also areas that should clearly be competed and decided on the merits, not on political muscle,” Ellis said.

While both parties in the House have demonstrated interest in scaling back earmarks, the measures will hardly put a dent in the more than 9,4000 earmarks requested in fiscal 2010, at a cost of about $100 billion. Ellis said companies with earmarked projects are likely to turn their efforts towards the Senate, which largely has resisted any similar measures.

One senator in favor of earmark reform is Obey’s colleague from Wisconsin, Democrat Russ Feingold. Last week Feingold endorsed the House GOP’s one-year moratorium on earmarks and co-sponsored a measure with Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina that would impose the same restriction on the Senate.

“I commend House Republicans for their year-long ban on earmarks and encourage House and Senate Democrats to do the same,” Feingold said. “But the Senate and House should go further and finally enact my bipartisan bill to fix the broken earmarking system, which breeds corruption and wastes taxpayer dollars. Taxpayers will be the winner if we can end this abusive practice.”

Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee agreed that earmark spending is out of hand, but stopped short of calling for their elimination.

“I’m ready to vote for more reforms. I’m not ready to give away the Congress’s right to appropriate money … Under the Constitution, that’s my job,” Alexander said.

Despite increasing support for reforming the earmark system, Ellis is not optimistic about the Senate joining the fight. The one person he said could change that is President Obama, who has previously spoken out against earmarks aimed at for-profit companies. By promising to veto any pork-laden spending bills, Obama could effectively end the practice immediately.

“It’s also time for the president to step up to the plate,” said Ellis, noting that during his last two years in the Senate, Obama didn’t request any earmarks. “Essentially that gives him some moral high ground with the Senate. He can say ‘I’ve been in your shoes and I didn’t play the game.'”