Earmarks may be dead, but pet projects live on

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Despite a three-year-old ban on earmarks, members of Congress have found ways to bring home the bacon.

Two spending authorization bills Congress will take up this week, one dealing with water projects and the other the nation's defense needs, include provisions allowing lawmakers to proudly take credit for bringing the potential for government spending in their districts.

Republican lawmakers have stressed that the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which authorizes $8.2 billion in spending, and the $600.1 billion defense authorization legislation, are completely free of earmarks, or line-item spending directly linked to a specific lawmaker.

And because neither bill is an appropriations measure, passage of the legislation doesn’t guarantee any particular project will be funded.

The House banned earmarks in 2011, at the start of the 112th Congress. The Senate followed a month later, eliminating much of the pet project spending from lawmakers that for decades had been added to appropriations bills.

That hasn’t stopped lawmakers from pushing for, then claiming credit for important and potentially expensive projects added to authorizing legislation.

In the water projects bill, for example, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., a chief negotiator, fought to include more than $10.3 billion in federal funds to build a massive hurricane wall in Louisiana.

The project was excluded from a House version of the water authorization legislation, but Vitter pushed to have it put back in during a House-Senate conference.

The Morganza to the Gulf levee system includes segments that are as wide as two football fields and 16 feet tall.

“Morganza may be one of the single most important authorization that we got in the final bill,” Vitter said after the deal was reached.

Vitter said the wall would help prevent hurricane flooding in two vulnerable parishes. But critics think it spends too much because the relative risk of a serious hurricane hitting the two parishes each year is minuscule.

“That's a paltry level of protection especially at the cost,” Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, told the Washington Examiner.

The project was requested by the Obama Administration but has been on a years-long wish list from lawmakers. It was last authorized in 2007 by both Vitter, who is now running for Louisiana governor, and Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat who is up for re-election this year.

In the House defense authorization legislation, lawmakers have also designated provisions in the bill that would benefit constituents. They don’t provide specific spending, but Ellis calls the language “pre-earmarks.”

Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y., inserted one provision that would require the assistant secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological programs to “brief the committee on the status of the development of a vaccine for equine encephalitis,” which has sickened or killed several people in central New York, including a 4-year-old girl who died in 2011.

Maffei is hoping to push the military to make the vaccine available to the public, which it has so far refused to share with because it is still being developed.

Maffei also authored language in the defense authorization bill that would require Army Secretary John McHugh to brief the committee “on the potential benefits,” of using a type of carbon-fiber ladder produced in Maffei’s district.

Maffei has defended the move, but Ellis and other critics say it violates the intent of the earmark ban.

“It is an attempt to get a leg up for a parochial interest by a lawmaker,” Ellis said.

As with earmarks, lawmakers are not exactly keeping their efforts secret.

Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, send out a press release announcing “good news for Great Lakes,” outlining a provision in the water bill that will steer more federal resources and money to improve and rehabilitate the Great Lakes.

The House is scheduled to take up the water bill under a special rule that will require a three quarters of voting members to approve it. Republicans, however, have been encouraged to vote against it by the conservative group Heritage Action, which said the bill “lacks necessary reforms and hikes spending.”

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Susan Ferrechio

Chief Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner