By LIZ RUSKIN
Anchorage Daily News
February 03, 2006
Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who has been spectacularly successful at earmarking billions of dollars for Alaska, defended the practice Wednesday and said he didn't see much need to curtail it.
"What needs fixing is to have the public understand what we do when we earmark bills," he told reporters.
Stevens was king of the earmark for the six years he served as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which writes the nation's annual spending bills. He remains a member of that committee, giving him much more control over the spending bills than the average lawmaker.
But earmarks are attracting some of the fallout from recent Washington corruption scandals. Critics, notably Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., complain that the line-item additions bloat the budget, set national priorities askew and often occur at the last minute, when it's too late to excise them. He's been a lone voice in the marbled halls of the Senate for years. These days he has more company.
"I am pleased that members of Congress are working on earmark reform - because the federal budget has too many special interest projects," Bush told the nation Tuesday. McCain, sitting with his fellow senators, grinned and clapped heartily. Bush didn't endorse any particular reform except to advocate for a line-item veto. Other earmark foes have said the appropriations committees need to clearly list the earmarks in each bill and disclose who requested each one.
Stevens said he doesn't object to greater transparency, but he said it's Congress' job to write the spending bills. It says so in the Constitution, so a line-item veto by the president would be unconstitutional, he argued.
He said the appropriations committees change about 2 percent to 3 percent of national spending, but the changes are controversial because they are often items that weren't in the president's budget proposal.
Still, Stevens said earmarks have allowed him to fund important programs that benefit Alaska and the rest of the country. Sometimes, he said, administration employees neglect Alaska when they write their budget requests.
"So if my constituents come to me and say, 'There's something wrong here, we're not getting something we should get,' and I can convince my colleagues in the Senate that we should try to answer their request, we'll find a way to do it," he said. "You want to call it an earmark? OK, call it an earmark. I call it response to constituents' request."
McCain, though, says the appropriations committees are out of control on earmarks. Between 1994 and 2004, the number of home-district earmarks in appropriations bills jumped from 4,000 to 14,000, according to the Congressional Research Service. The earmarks in 1994 were worth about $29 billion, compared with $52 billion a decade later.
Stevens chided Alaska reporters Wednesday for paying attention to critics like McCain and other likely candidates for president.
"You guys fall for it and give them publicity," Stevens said. "They don't bother me at all. I will still seek the funds that I believe Alaskans need from the budget."
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