California lawmakers split over earmarks

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Newly elected members of the House of Representatives participate during a new member orientation on Nov. 15, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. New Republicans in the House, as well as the new House Speaker John Boehner, say they're against Congressional earmarks.

The US Senate has rejected an amendment that would have banned earmarks for three years. But the 56 to 39 vote this morning (Tues) is the strongest showing yet on earmarks and the issue is guaranteed to become an issue in January. Republicans have targeted them as a way to bring down the deficit – and bring federal spending out in the open. The California delegation is divided about giving up earmarks.

House and Senate rules describe earmarks as spending items included “primarily at the request” of a lawmaker that are targeted “to an entity” or “a specific state.”

Donald Ritchie, the US Senate's historian, says earmarks have been part of the budget process since Henry Clay was Speaker of the House almost two centuries ago. The word itself harkens back to the days when the cowboy was king.

He says earmarking "goes back to the days when cattle were marked to indicate that they belonged to a particular rancher. And usually there was something clipped to their ears." In political usage, earmarks are clipped onto legislation.

Freshman Republican Congressman Jeff Denham of Fresno knows exactly where he stands on Congressional earmarks.

"I think it’s un-American to have earmarks where you’re hiding things in there because you can," he says. "If it’s important for your district, you ought to be able to fight for it in the budget. Water is a huge, important issue in my area, but it’s something that I’m going to fight for in the light of day."

Denham's comment hints that earmarks are a sort of behind-closed-doors kind of lawmaking. That's not exactly correct. They don't get a lot of attention, but they're not secret.

Ritchie says members of Congress can vote against earmarks in committee, on the floor, or even after a bill is passed and is negotiated in conference committee. If a member of Congress wanted money for a project back home, Ritchie says that one way to go is to ask a federal government agency to include money for the project in its budget request.

"And if they don’t," he says, "then your other option is to say, 'Well, we’re going to write it in this bill.'"

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer voted against an earmark ban. She says she doesn't understand why legislators would want "to give up their ability to help their people at home. I don't get it."

She says when she looks back "at the things I’ve been able to do for our state, whether it’s projects for after school children to keep them out of trouble, or homeless, help them, or senior citizens, or certain road projects, these are things from the people who know what’s needed."

Denham and other new Republicans in the House — as well as the new House Speaker John Boehner — say they're against earmarks. But the issue doesn’t split easily along party lines. Republican Congressman Buck McKeon of Santa Clarita is the incoming Chair of the House Armed Services Committee. He says the Committee writes a bill every year "and hopefully we’re in touch. We go out and visit the troops and we find out where we see a need that maybe has taken too long to make it through the bureaucracy and maybe we can add it on to the bill."

He says in the past, some of that’s been done through earmarks. "That’s a bad word now and we’re gonna have to find out how we do it. But the Predator was the result of earmarks; body armor was..."

Predators are the drone aircraft used in Afghanistan. They’re built in California. The civilian bosses at the Department of Defense didn’t want them, but the military did. Ritchie says it’s not unusual for various branches of the military to work Capitol Hill.

"They can’t get the Secretary of Defense to approve it, but they can sort of plant the word with the Armed Services Committee and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to say, 'This is a really good piece of equipment. We would like to get this.'"

Members of Congress pushed for drones – and used earmarks to get them. Today’s vote in the Senate shows there’s a growing number in Congress willing to give up that power.

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

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