Earmarks helped Arizona claim Colorado River water

An aerial view of the Hoover Dam and the Hoover Dam bypass under construction June 12, 2009 in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona.
An aerial view of the Hoover Dam and the Hoover Dam bypass under construction June 12, 2009 in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The U.S. Senate is likely to vote this week on a two-year ban on earmarks. Smaller states often profit more from earmarks than bigger states like California.

In Congress, seniority is power. Senate historian Donald Ritchie says small states re-elect incumbents more often than big states. That means long-serving lawmakers from smaller states end up with plum committee chairmanships — and more power to tack on earmarks.

Ritchie cites the example of Republican Carl Hayden. He was Arizona’s first congressman when the state entered the union in 1912.

Fifteen years later, Hayden moved up to the Senate where he served for more than four decades. Ritchie says Hayden was powerful enough to make sure that when they divvied up Colorado River water, bone-dry Arizona got a good drenching.

"When Hayden came to Congress," he says, "it was a very small state that didn’t have the resources, didn’t have the water, didn’t have the roads. He made sure that the dams were built, that the roads were built, that the aqueducts were built. And now there are millions of people living in Arizona who couldn’t have lived there before the federal government put that much money, spent that much money in the state."

California battled Hayden and Arizona for water on Capitol Hill and in the courts. Finally, a compromise ensured that California would get a share of the Colorado River.

This is the fourth part in a series looking at the history of congressional earmarks.

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