Critics fear Senate bill could mean backdoor return of earmarks

By Sean Reilly | 07/07/2015 07:00 AM EDT

A decade after an uproar over an Alaskan bridge venture helped cool a congressional earmarking craze, lawmakers would gain renewed, if limited, power to steer money to favored transportation projects under a bill approved last month by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

A decade after an uproar over an Alaskan bridge venture helped cool a congressional earmarking craze, lawmakers would gain renewed, if limited, power to steer money to favored transportation projects under a bill approved last month by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The bipartisan highway measure would create a program labeled "assistance for major projects," with an authorized budget of $2.4 billion over six years to help build "critical high-cost surface transportation infrastructure." Applications from local governments and other entities would go first to the Federal Highway Administration, which would winnow them against almost 20 factors spelled out in the bill, such as the extent to which they would reduce congestion and improve roadways needed for "national energy security."

The agency would then forward its recommendations each year to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate EPW Committee for final decisions on which projects receive funding and how much. The full Congress would have to sign off in a joint resolution.


The proposed framework is not a return to earmarking, Senate EPW Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a brief interview just before the recent congressional recess, noting that the committees, not individual lawmakers, would make the selections. The first round of funding choices would be subject to a Government Accountability Office review that would examine the justification for each project selected.

"We would be using criteria, and you would be talking about the whole committee," Inhofe said.

At Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog organization, Vice President Steve Ellis agreed that the provision would not trigger an existing congressional moratorium on earmarks. Ellis added, however, that his group would like to see "a full debate" on the legislation, accompanied by an explanation of what lawmakers are trying to accomplish with the proposed assistance program.

With little discussion, EPW members unanimously signed off on S. 1647, the 270-page highway measure, on June 24, the day after it was introduced. Their approval marked the first step toward creation of a long-term surface transportation bill that could also fund rail and transit programs. Because lawmakers are far short of the money needed to cover the total cost, passage this year is seen as a long shot.

But Inhofe has voiced confidence that Congress will find the $90 billion or so needed just to sustain current spending levels over six years, let alone increase them. The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), also does not see the assistance program as earmarking, saying in a separate interview that decisions would be based on a competitive process, not on "where you live."

The House T&I panel has not yet approved its own version of a long-term bill; a spokesman for Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Often derided as "pork," earmarking is typically defined as spending for a particular project or program secured through the clout of an individual lawmaker. For Congress, the subject remains touchy; four years ago, House Republicans agreed to an earmarking ban that remains in effect today.

The crackdown followed a series of scandals and public relations debacles dating back to 2005, when Congress approved a transportation bill studded with thousands of earmarks. They included some $223 million worth for a planned bridge linking the small Alaska town of Ketchikan to Gravina Island, whose population at the time numbered about 50.

Taxpayers for Common Sense christened the project the "Bridge to Nowhere." It quickly became a catchphrase for congressional overreach, as then-House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) had previously boasted of stuffing the transportation bill "like a turkey" with home-state projects and then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a senior appropriator, threatened to quit Congress if the money for the Gravina Island span and another proposed bridge was diverted to deal with Hurricane Katrina damage.

Nonetheless, the Gravina project was never built. Unrelated scandals that led to prison time for then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and lobbyist Jack Abramoff further sullied earmarking’s image.

Even so, policymakers in both parties have expressed nostalgia for the days of hand-picked projects, with the suggestion that a revival would smooth the path to approval of a new transportation bill.

Earmarks "are grease to the political process," Andrew Card, who headed the Transportation Department under President George H.W. Bush, said at a conference last fall. The "Bridge to Nowhere," Card added, "funded 1,000 other bridges."

To Kevin DeGood, the newly proposed assistance program feels like Congress "desperately trying to get back" in the earmarking game. DeGood is director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank. Although lawmakers may passionately believe they best understand the needs of their states or districts, he said, "that doesn’t mean it’s a practice that should come back."

DeGood also fears that the proposed program is a backhanded attempt to replace popular Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants and would be skewed in favor of highway projects. While transit projects could receive money, the selection process would exclude the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which oversees public transportation programs, he wrote in an analysis posted last week on the center’s website.

In at least some congressional offices, opposition to earmarks remains unyielding. Last month, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced S. 1544, the "Jurassic Pork Act," which would rescind funding for transportation earmarks that remain mostly unspent after 10 years. The leftover proceeds would go to the federal Highway Trust Fund.

"Earmarks are extinct for a reason and I doubt taxpayers are interested in a sequel," Flake said in a news release touting a related report that recommends the existing ban be made permanent. Asked through a spokeswoman for his opinion on the highway bill’s proposed assistance program, Flake said in a statement: "This proposal needs to be thoroughly vetted."