GOP senators qualify earmark ban to support ports
Senate Republicans on Tuesday voted to self-impose a ban on earmarks, the pet projects that lawmakers are notoriously fond of slipping into appropriations bills to aid their home states, as part of a spend-less platform designed to appease an angry electorate.
In fiscal year 2010, special legislative set-asides totaled $16 billion, but the amount is far less than 1 percent of the entire federal budget. Previous efforts to get legislators to abstain from earmarks have not met with much success. The GOP's ban is voluntary and non-binding, leaving room for lawmakers to insert pork barrel projects into legislation or related documents.
Some members of the Republican caucus reluctantly agreed to the moratorium after sensing the political mood of the nation. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, for example, has steered millions of dollars to his state under the rationale that elected representatives know better than executive branch bureaucrats where money is most needed.
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Two Republican senators listed port development in their states as the type of projects that may require them to still utilize the earmark mechanism.
'I have consistently voted for the elimination of earmarks in the past and supported the earmark-moratorium resolution today,' Sen. Saxby Chamblis of Georgia said in a statement. 'However, there are times when crises arise or issues come forth of such importance to Georgia, such as critical support to the Port of Savannah, and the nation that I reserve the right to ask Congress and the president to approve funding.'
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he would consider an earmark if other options to secure $400,000 for a feasibility study to deepen the harbor at the Port of Charleston don't succeed within five months.
Those options are for the Obama administration to include the funding for a port study in its 2012 fiscal year budget submission to Congress or for Congress to pass fellow South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint's anticipated legislation reforming the way port studies and harbor deepening are funded. One of the DeMint's goals is to get the Army Corps of Engineers to spend funds on projects based on merit.
'I respect the spirit in which this moratorium has been agreed to and hope it will lead to a better use of taxpayer dollars. However, I maintain the right to seek funding to protect our national security or where the jobs and economy of South Carolina are at risk. If the Obama administration and their bureaucrats in the federal agencies take action against the best interests of South Carolina, I will take swift action to correct their wrongs,' he said in a statement.
Graham said the Charleston dredging project needs to proceed quickly to ready the port for larger ships that will be able to call on the East Coast with the 2014 opening of an expanded set of locks in the Panama Canal. Graham claimed that the port could lose market share if container lines sign service contracts with other ports that are more prepared to handle big ships. The South Carolina Port Authority, however, touts the port's 47-foot channel depth (45-foot inner harbor depth) as one of its advantages compared to other ports on the South Atlantic coast.
Savannah and Charleston are in heavy competition for container freight.
Rep. James Oberstar, the outgoing chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a farewell press conference on Tuesday that it is a 'simplistic notion that members of Congress shouldn't have a role in designating where resources of the federal government are invested' because it leaves the people without a voice when the process is left to the executive branch or states.
The primary problem with earmarking is that it has not been an open process, which he said he tried to fix at the start of the last Congress by requiring lawmakers on his committee to sign a statement that they had no conflict of interest on funding requests and that all projects had a local sponsor that would match the federal contribution.
The multiyear surface transportation bill passed by Congress in 2005 was loaded down with 6,300 earmarks worth about $24 billion. Shippers and other freight transportation interests object to earmarks because they divert money from high priority needs.
'In the business of infrastructure it inhibits good multistate, well-planned projects,' Bruce Carlton, president of the National Industrial Transportation League, told reporters covering the group's annual meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. ' Eric Kulisch