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Senators can’t lop off those earmarks

Times Staff Writer

Even the entreaties of the three senators running for president weren’t enough to persuade their colleagues Thursday to curb their appetite for earmarks -- the practice of designating federal dollars for pet projects.

Senators soundly rejected a one-year moratorium backed by the presidential hopefuls -- Republican John McCain and Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- even though it put senators from both parties at odds with their presidential contenders.

The vote -- 29 in favor of the proposal, 71 opposed -- again demonstrated the enduring popularity of earmarks, even though they have figured prominently in recent congressional scandals, including one that landed former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of Rancho Santa Fe in prison.

It also underscored the conflicting political interests of the presidential candidates -- who see a strong stand against earmarks as a way to show fiscal discipline -- and their Senate colleagues who see bringing home the bacon as a way to show constituents they are getting something back for their taxes.

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To deprive Republicans of a talking point for the fall election campaign, House Democratic leaders are still considering an earmark moratorium.

The moratorium was designed to give lawmakers time to come up with new reforms to earmarking, which has come under attack because projects are often slipped into bills without public scrutiny and are often funded not on merit, but on political factors such as a lawmaker’s service on an appropriations committee.

A number of Republicans believe that the explosion of earmarks while they controlled Congress -- from 1,439 in 1995 to nearly 14,000 in 2005 -- contributed to their losing the majority in 2006. Now those legislators are attacking the practice to help restore their party’s reputation for fiscal discipline.

In the Senate, the moratorium was proposed by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). “The congressional favor factory hasn’t been closed. It is just under new management,” he said.

Democratic leaders say they have reformed the practice, including forcing lawmakers to identify the earmarks they secure and to certify that they have no financial stake in them. Even so, critics said this year’s spending bills were loaded with 12,881 earmarks costing more than $18 billion. Among California projects were $490,000 for the Los Angeles County Fire Museum, which a spokeswoman for sponsor Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles) said would display “antique to contemporary firefighting apparatus and honor the service of the firefighting community”; $196,000 for improvements to Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park; and $245,000 for improvements to Mission Road in Alhambra.

California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, opposed the proposal.

The moratorium vote came as the Senate also considered a $3-trillion budget for the next fiscal year. That resolution, which passed 51-44 early today, sets spending and tax targets for bills drafted later this year. It calls for more spending for domestic programs than President Bush has proposed, extends some of Bush’s tax cuts and provides $35 billion for a second stimulus package if the first one fails to pump up the economy.

Although the budget document is nonbinding, both parties are expected to spotlight the votes during this fall’s campaign to highlight differences between the parties. The House approved its version of the budget earlier Thursday on a 212-207 vote.

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Clinton was the only senator not on the appropriations panel to be among the top 10 in securing money for projects in this year’s spending bills. She snagged $342 million in earmarks, alone and working with other lawmakers, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Obama secured $98 million.

McCain sought no earmarks, according to the watchdog group. The Arizona senator issued a statement noting that “we have to face the facts, and one fact is that we can’t continue to spend taxpayers’ dollars on wasteful, unnecessary pork-barrel projects or cater to the special interests any longer.”

Obama said in a statement that he believes that the practice of doling out earmarks “based on a member of Congress’ seniority, rather than the merit of the project,” needed to be reformed. “We can no longer accept an earmarks process that has become so complicated to navigate that a municipality or nonprofit group has to hire high-priced D.C. lobbyists to do it,” the Illinois senator said.

Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines said the New York senator supported the moratorium to give Congress “time to take a hard look at this process and work on improving its transparency and accountability.”

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Although both Democratic presidential candidates support the earmark moratorium, their campaigns exchanged words over the issue before the vote. Obama’s campaign released his earmark requests for 2005 and 2006 and called on Clinton to follow suit. In response, Reines said that Clinton has “made public the funding she has helped to secure and will make public the requests she submits this year.”

She will, he added, “limit requests for earmarks this year to the most critical needs.”

Lawmakers from both parties have defended earmarking, saying they know better than Washington bureaucrats what is best for their states. As one of the Senate’s strongest earmark supporters, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), put it: “The idea that an all-knowing, all-powerful executive bureaucracy is more trustworthy than the elected representatives of the people when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars challenges the most basic tenet of our political system.”

Some lawmakers have recently decided on their own to forgo earmarks this year until Congress enacts further reforms.

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In the California delegation, they include Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), John Campbell (R-Irvine) and Devin Nunes (R-Visalia.). Waxman said there are still “too many questionable projects,” and the “sheer volume of earmark requests imposes an impossible burden” on the appropriations committee to scrutinize them.

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richard.simon@latimes.com


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