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Risch, Crapo co-requesting $818 million in 213 earmarks

by Jay Patrick
| November 10, 2010 4:15 AM

Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo say they’re all for reforming — perhaps ending — earmarks, but while the maligned funding method remains in place the two are requesting away.

For 2011, the senators are co-requesting 213 earmarks worth $818 million.

Brad Houglun, a Risch senior policy advisor, said the senator would rather do away with earmarks, but “at the same time he’s reconciled to the fact states are getting money,” and will continue putting in for Idaho’s share.

Unlike some of his congressional colleagues, Risch has done more than bad mouth earmarks  in March he co-sponsored South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint s bid for a two-year moratorium in the Senate. Crapo voted in favor of DeMint’s proposal, the latest of several he’s made the past few years, which ultimately failed on a 29-68 tally.

While Idaho’s senators have backed recent anti-earmark efforts, they have refused to step forward and turn down the money, as have some, including DeMint, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has not requested a single earmark in his 20 years in office. Idaho Congressional District 1 Rep. Walt Minnick, a Democrat, also declined to request earmarks in his two years in office.

Led by Boehner, and other GOP House leaders, including Minority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., all Republican representatives agreed to not make any requests for 2011. Among them, of course, is Idaho Congressional District 2 Rep. Mike Simpson, who scored $48 million on 52 requests for fiscal year 2010.

Simpson doesn’t plan to push earmark reform himself but would continue holding off on requests if that’s what party leaders want in the future.

“There is a lot of discussion about extending the moratorium another year. If Republican leadership decides to do so, he would support that,” said Simpson spokeswoman Nikki Watts.

More than half of the money Risch and Crapo are requesting for 2011 — $490 million — is slated for the Idaho National Laboratory in 16 requests. Two INL requests account for $431 million   $244 million for the “Next Generation Nuclear Plant” program and $187 million for general operations.

Here’s an overview of the requests:

• Energy and water; 20 requests for $500 million; largest request: $244 million for Idaho National Laboratory Next Generation Nuclear Plant program.

• Defense; 34 requests for $150 million; largest request: $24 million for a new engineering maintenance complex at Mountain Home Air Force Base.

• Transportation, housing and urban development; 24 requests for $55 million; largest request: $6.8 million to the city of Idaho Falls for development of Ryder Park.

• Interior; 57 requests for $42 million; largest request:$4 million to the Rural Community Assistance Partnership to help small communities address water and waste water treatment needs.

• Agriculture; 26 requests for $29 million; largest request: $12 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Potato Cyst Nematode Eradication program.

• Health, education and labor; 34 requests for $17 million; largest request: $2.3 million to the North Idaho Rural Health Consortium for development of a North Idaho electronic medical records system.

• Commerce, justice and science; 15 requests for $16 million; largest request: $3.5 million to four north Idaho counties to establish a wireless communications network for emergency responders.

• Homeland Security; three requests for $8 million; largest request: $4.5 million to the Madison County Fire Protection District to establish a regional training center.

In 2010, the Idaho senators made 251 requests worth $979 million; 73 worth $84 million were approved.

Though earmarks are much discussed, they are often not well understood.  (The White House Office of Management and Budget defines earmarks as “funds provided by the Congress for projects, programs, or grants where the purported congressional direction (whether in statutory text, report language, or other communication) circumvents otherwise applicable merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the executive branch to manage its statutory and constitutional responsibilities pertaining to the funds allocation process.”

Contrary to popular belief, earmarks, which represent about 1 percent of the budget, do not increase spending but rather direct it — by requesting earmarks, legislators are deciding where money will be spent instead of the executive branch.

Though the ability to “bring home the bacon” was not long ago considered a mark of an effective representative, “earmark” has in recent times become a dirty word, thanks in part to high-profile cases of waste and corruption, including the late Sen. Ted Stevens’ notorious “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.

“There is no question that earmarks — rightly or wrongly — have become the poster child for Washington’s wasteful spending,” Cantor wrote in a Politico op-ed earlier this month. “They have been linked to corruption and scandal, and serve as a fuel line for the culture of spending that has dominated Washington far too long.”

Some see politicians using earmarks to curry favor from voters, or powerful companies and individuals, by funneling money to pet projects that can’t claim a broad benefit — perhaps such as $930,000 for restoration of the Panida Theater in Sandpoint, a Risch-Crapo 2011 request.

Earmark defenders say the mechanism helps small states with relatively light sway land dollars and lets local elected leaders decide where money goes, instead of the executive branch, which may not understand or appreciate needs at regional and local levels.

“An earmark may be pork to some political chatterbox on television, but it could be an economic lifeline for a community,” said the late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd in a statement in March.

Earmarks have sometimes been celebrated, perhaps no more prominently than in the film “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which chronicled in a positive light a Texas representative’s undisclosed appropriations worth billions to fund the Afghan Mujahideen’s fight against the Soviets in the 1980s. But the tide has turned, in part due to the Tea Party movement’s call for an end to the practice.  Earmark champion Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, once hailed for bringing money back to little Utah, was ripped earlier this year for scoring so much “pork” over the years. The Senate titan didn’t even make it to the party primary, finishing third at the Republican caucus behind two candidates vowing to dump earmarks. Utah Senator-elect Mike Lee, a Tea Party favorite, has said he supports a moratorium in the Senate.

Sen. DeMint is counting on newcomers like Lee, and the continued support of senators like Crapo and Risch, to finally win his war on earmarks. But high-ranking senators on both sides, including Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., don’t seem ready to relinquish their earmark powers.

“Every president, Republican or Democrat, would love to have a blank check from Congress to do whatever he chose to do on every single issue,” McConnell said after a speech at The Heritage Foundation this week, according to Politico. “We’ll be discussing the appropriateness of giving the president that kind of blank check in the coming weeks, because that s really what that issue is about.”

While he voted in support of an earmark moratorium earlier this year, Crapo, too, is wary of giving up the reins.

“I support real reforms that do not undercut the proper role of Congress to direct spending, but which stop abuses that result in wasteful spending,” he says in a letter sent to constituents who question his position. Crapo says he doesn’t want to pass on money only to have the president spend it elsewhere. “Once Congress makes a decision to establish the overall budget for an agency or a program, those funds will be spent somewhere even if earmarks are eliminated.  I have long been a proponent of setting aside budgetary savings into a ‘budget lockbox,’ whereby money saved by eliminating an earmark, for example, would be used to help pay down the federal debt, rather than for other federal spending projects.”

As for Risch?

“He believes that federal funding requests need to go through a competitive process, not just a political process,” said Hoaglun, the senator’s policy advisor. “He doesn’t like the earmarking process and has voted to do away with it, but he wants it to be a level playing field for all states.”

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