House Republicans say they’re going cold turkey on pork projects

For years, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) has proudly delivered a cornucopia of federal dollars to the folks back home -- more than $82 million this year alone, including money for road improvements and medical research.

But he and nearly all of his House Republican colleagues say they are swearing off such “earmarks” this year to demonstrate fiscal responsibility.

The change of heart has set up an election-year argument over who is best serving their constituents -- Republicans who say lean times demand belt-tightening, or Democrats who continue to seek special funding for local projects such as buying parkland in the Santa Monica Mountains or offering healthier food in Chicago schools.

“This is an important step for reining in out-of-control government spending and changing the culture of Washington,” said Republican Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of Santa Clarita.

Democrats dispute that characterization and say earmarks serve a valuable purpose.

“During these tough economic times,” said Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), “Democrats shouldn’t shy away for one moment from their responsibility and duty to improve schools, rebuild roads, retrain workers, provide healthcare and invest in the people and communities in their districts.”

Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove, Orange County’s lone Democratic House member, is the only member of the county’s congressional delegation pursuing earmarks this year.

“As long as the earmark process remains in place, Congresswoman Sanchez will fight tooth and nail for every federal dollar she can bring back to Orange County,” said her chief of staff, Adrienne Elrod.

Republicans hope the earmark moratorium will play well with voters.

“Earmarks have become a dirty word to the American electorate,” said Steve Ellis of the watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense. “That’s why Congress is trying to re-brand the term; they call it ‘congressionally directed spending.’ Good luck with that.”

California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) said the public would understand the GOP’s no-earmark position and support it.

“I highly doubt the American people would prefer a local project be funded by dollars borrowed from China rather than trying to bring sanity back to the economy to save our children’s economic future,” Rohrabacher said.

This division among the parties is a departure from the past. Even in the most partisan times, Democratic and Republican lawmakers aggressively worked to bring home the bacon to show constituents they were getting back some of the money they send to Washington.

Congress this year included nearly $16 billion on 9,500 earmarks in its spending bills, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The practice of steering money to projects, often sought by campaign contributors and lobbyists, has been controversial because of scandals, including one that landed former California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham in jail.

“Pork-barrel spending” for projects such as Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere” and a cowgirl hall of fame in Texas also have brought earmarking to public attention.

Democrats, who won control of Congress in 2006 after highlighting earmark abuses under the Republicans, have opened the process to greater public scrutiny and reduced earmarks from the record 15,000 costing $23 billion set under the GOP majority in 2005.

House Democrats recently banned earmarks to profit-making companies -- typically defense contractors. Then Republicans, in a display of one-upmanship, announced their no-earmarks policy.

Some local officials in Republican-held districts say the House GOP’s no-earmarks policy could make tough times tougher for some communities.

Roger Gwinn, president of the Ferguson Group, which represents local governments nationwide that pursue earmarks, said the moratorium threatened to eliminate a vital funding stream for local road, sewer and law enforcement projects.

In Lewis’ district, Hesperia City Manager Mike Podegracz said that some people might see the parties’ different earmark policies as creating “some degree of unfairness that some parts of the state would be receiving the funds and other parts wouldn’t, even though there is a need throughout the state.”

“If there are, indeed, earmarks, the Republican Party should definitely be in there getting a share for their districts,” added Pat Gilbreath, mayor of Redlands, which is in Lewis’ district.

Among the sharpest critics of the House GOP’s policy are Senate Republicans who say it would shift spending decisions to the executive branch.

Two years ago, Lewis conceded as much in defending earmarks. “If recommendations of members of Congress are ignored, the spending would be left to the bureaucrats in each agency,” his spokesman Jim Specht said at the time.

But as lawmakers found it difficult to rein in overall spending, Lewis was persuaded by Republican leadership to support the earmark moratorium as a “forceful demonstration of the need to cut spending,” Specht said recently.

At least three GOP House members are seeking earmarks for their districts in defiance of their party leadership. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) posted 30 pages of earmark requests on his office website.

And some Democrats have joined Republicans in forgoing earmarks.

The House GOP policy has set off a stampede to the offices of senators. One example: McKeon’s home base of Santa Clarita, a city in northern Los Angeles County that tends to vote Republican.

City Manager Ken Pulskamp said the city hoped to receive $1.15 million in federal funds for three projects, including $500,000 to retrofit the city’s emergency operations center.

With McKeon, the city’s first mayor, abiding by the earmark moratorium, Santa Clarita is turning to Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats.

“It is too early to tell about the earmark ban’s impact on the city of Santa Clarita,” Pulskamp said. “We’re hoping to use other routes to secure the project money we need.”