By LIZ RUSKIN
January 20, 2006
"It's got to be stopped. It's completely out of control," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said of the widespread practice this week. McCain has railed against earmarks for years, saying these line-item additions to appropriations bills - inserted by the thousands, often late in a bill's journey - allow individual lawmakers to waste taxpayer dollars on pork-barrel projects.
But in recent days several prominent Republicans have joined McCain. They are calling for earmark reform as part of the remedy for the ills revealed by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
"The earmark procedure allows powerful leaders to put provisions in, quite frankly, in secret, in backroom deals, that most members don't even know about. And we need to clean that up and end that practice," said Arizona Rep. John Shadegg, who is campaigning to be the next House Republican leader.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert has also called for earmark reform.
"This is more than just talk," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. "I think there has been a spotlight that has been shone on this, and I don't think that's a bad thing."
Stevens was king of the earmark for the six years he served as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and he still enjoys a lot of earmarking power as a member of that committee. He has written earmarks to build rural Alaska health clinics, to improve harbors, to straighten the Alaska Railroad track, to expand Alaska museums and university programs, to beef up Alaska's military presence and for countless other projects.
He has been unapologetic about his earmarks, which he says help make up for the years when Alaska was excluded from federal spending programs.
Murkowski acknowledged that Alaska has received "a great many earmarks."
"There are many who would suggest that is basically how we get taken care of," she said. But that didn't stop her from welcoming new scrutiny of the practice.
"It is fair to question a process where we don't know - we, your lawmakers - don't know what has gone into an appropriations bill at the very end of the day because of how the earmarks work," she said.
Earmarks aren't easy to find, let alone debate or reject. At their most obvious, they are tucked in among hundreds of pages of an appropriations bill. Sometimes, though, they don't appear until the final negotiations are done, after it's too late to remove them and the only choice a lawmaker has is to accept or reject the entire bill. Often they aren't in the legislation at all, but in a report the bill negotiators compile to explain the bill. And sometimes they're not in the final bill or report but in the report accompanying a version of the bill the House or Senate passed earlier.
McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake, also an Arizona Republican, have introduced bills requiring all earmarks to be included in the bill itself. Another proposal, aimed at making the earmarking process more transparent, calls for publicly disclosing the name of the lawmaker who proposed the earmark.
The current earmark process puts lawmakers in a position to do favors for special interests and invites corruption, Flake says.
"Jack Abramoff reportedly referred to the appropriations committee as a 'favor factory,' " Flake wrote in a letter to Hastert this month. "No one who has seen the process firsthand, as we have, would honestly dispute his characterization."
Abramoff, the disgraced former lobbyist, has pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges and is cooperating with authorities as they build their case against one or more lawmakers he worked with.
McCain says earmarking has mushroomed, citing Congressional Research Service figures showing that the number of earmarks has quadrupled since 1994.
In defense of earmarks, Stevens has sometimes noted that they don't add to the nation's total spending, they just direct federal agencies where to spend a portion of the money allocated to them.
He had no comment Wednesday on the proposals for earmark reform or how they might affect Alaska, his office said.
"Article 1 of the Constitution says Congress has the power of the purse," his spokeswoman, Courtney Boone, said. "Senator Stevens has worked diligently for Alaska in that regard."
Earmarking takes decision-making away from federal departments, and lawmakers often say that they know the needs of their states better than some Washington bureaucrat does.
But even some longtime defenders of earmarks are changing their tune. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., told reporters Wednesday that he won't apologize for getting earmarks for poor towns in his home state that federal officials probably can't even find.
"Now, having said that, there's no question that it's gotten out of control. It's exploded," said Lott, who is reportedly seeking a new Senate leadership role. "I've actually pulled back from some of those earmarks because I, frankly, have gotten a little bit embarrassed."
He cited the earmarks in last year's transportation bill. Most infamous among them were Alaska's so-called "bridges to nowhere." They were primarily the work of Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, although both Alaska senators helped out.
One of Stevens' earmark beneficiaries has become embarrassing more recently.
Stevens directed $2.9 million to LOVE Social Services Center in Fairbanks, run by former Fairbanks mayor Jim Hayes. Thirty federal agents last week searched Hayes' home and other buildings investigating whether the group misused its federal money, the Fairbanks News-Miner reported.
Episodes like that give earmarks a "questionable name" and may point to the need for greater legislative scrutiny of earmark requests, Murkowski said. Then again, she said, the burden would be hard for congressional offices to manage.
"Boy, we'd have to hire twice the staff to just review all of the ... requests that come in, to make sure that you've had a clean audit for the past five years - I mean, to what level do you go?" she said. "At some point it doesn't become practical."
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