July 19, 2011 Cost-Cutters, Except When the Spending Is Back Home
By RON NIXON
WASHINGTON — Freshman House Republicans who rode a wave of voter discontent into office last year vowed to stop out-of-control spending, but that has not stopped several of them from quietly trying to funnel millions of federal dollars into projects back home.
They have pushed for dozens of projects in their districts, including military programs opposed by the president, replenishing beach sand lost to erosion, a $700 million bridge in Minnesota and a harbor dredging project in Charleston, S.C. Some of their projects were once earmarks, political shorthand for pet projects penciled into spending bills, which Republicans banned when they took over the House.
An examination of spending bills, news releases and communications with federal agencies obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows that nearly two dozen freshmen have sought money for projects that could ultimately cost billions of dollars, while calling for less spending and banning pork projects.
Politicians have long advocated for projects on behalf of individuals and businesses back home, even without earmarks. Several lawmakers said they were merely providing a constituent service. But since many of the freshman Republicans campaigned on a pledge to cut spending and to change Washington’s time-honored ways, their support of spending projects suggests that in many cases ideology can go only so far in serving the needs of people back home.
Lawmakers like Representative Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, who advocated for the harbor dredging project with other members of the South Carolina delegation, insist their requests are neither earmarks nor wasteful. “This was a merit-based project that was open and transparent,” said Mr. Scott, who helped secure $150,000 for the first phase of a harbor-deepening project in Charleston, his hometown. The project is expected eventually to cost as much as $300 million. Mr. Scott, a favorite of the Tea Party movement, said he is opposed to earmarks and that dredging the port was in the national interest because it would accommodate bigger cargo ships and help create trade opportunities and jobs.
The Obama administration did not agree and did not include the project in the Army Corps of Engineers budget. As a result Mr. Scott and Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, who tried to earmark financing for the project last year, threatened in April at a news conference in Charleston to tie up the government unless the project was approved. Mr. Graham also pledged to hold up President Obama’s nominees in the Senate. After the threat by Mr. Graham and lobbying by Mr. Scott and other members of South Carolina’s Congressional delegation, the corps agreed to pay for the dredging.
“Persistence pays off,” Mr. Scott said. “We knew dredging the Port of Charleston was a worthy project, and we were persistent in ensuring that the corps knew that, too.”
In some cases, freshman support for the financing of projects in their districts have put them in opposition to other members of the Republican Party who are calling for deep spending cuts and the elimination of hundreds of federal programs they consider wasteful.
Early this year, the Republican Study Committee, a conservative House caucus, opposed a program that replaces sand on the nation’s beaches as one of several wasteful programs, estimating that scrapping the program would save the government about $95 million.
”Beach erosion is a natural process, and spending in this area may not be effective,” the group said. “In addition, this spending is more properly the responsibility of states, localities and private landowners.”
But when the measure to kill the program came up for a vote last February, Representative Jon Runyan, a former professional football player and freshman Republican from New Jersey, opposed it, and it was overwhelmingly defeated. In his news release, Mr. Runyan, who had run a campaign on ending the “fiscal insanity” in Washington, boasted of his efforts in getting continued money for replenishing the sand on the beaches in his district.
Last year, the Democratic lawmaker whom Mr. Runyan defeated requested more than $20 million in earmarks to replace the sand on New Jersey’s beaches. On Tuesday, Mr. Runyan defended the program. “Beach replenishment projects are vital to protecting New Jersey’s 127 miles of coastline from violent storms,” he said in an e-mailed statement.
On the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, local officials and members of Congress have pushed for a new four-lane bridge over the St. Croix River that was co-sponsored by Representative Sean P. Duffy, a Wisconsin freshman Republican, and Representative Michele Bachmann, the three-term Minnesota Republican who is running for president.
Opponents labeled the bridge an earmark, but Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Bachmann said the bridge was critical to handle increased traffic that an 80-year-old bridge nearby can no longer handle alone. They defend the spending by arguing that it was not an earmark since there were no specific costs listed in the bill itself, nor is it a financing bill. The legislation calls only for a bridge to be built.
The National Park Service has opposed the project, saying it would violate the Wild and Scenic River Act by harming the river’s scenic and recreational qualities.
Last March, while the House was drafting the military authorization bill, 22 freshman Republicans wrote a letter to the House leadership requesting more military spending than President Obama had requested.
Many of the signees included members whose districts have a large military presence or big defense contractors like Representative Steven M. Palazzo, a Mississippi freshman. During his campaign, Mr. Palazzo told voters that he favored banning earmarks, saying it would “help restore the people’s faith in their government.”
But once in office, Mr. Palazzo voted with other Republicans to slash millions of dollars from the military bill, only to add an amendment later to restore the money. Mr. Palazzo’s amendment put back about $150 million for a combat ship that would be built at Ingalls Shipbuilding in his Pascagoula district. He also secured $10 million to buy land for training facilities for the Army National Guard, and $19.9 million for the ship’s preliminary design and feasibility studies. Several of these programs were earmarks of Mr. Palazzo’s Democratic predecessor.
“I am glad to be able to help ensure the long-term viability of our shipbuilding industry and the thousands of craftsmen that build the ships,” Mr. Palazzo said in a statement. Asked about the financing, Mr. Palazzo’s press secretary, Hunter Lipscomb, said the programs were not earmarks because the congressman did not request funds for any specific project, but merely to transfer funds to increase spending on the programs. “The way the authorized funding will be spent will be up to the Department of Defense,“ Mr. Lipscomb said.
Barclay Walsh contributed research.