McCaskill says members of Congress sneaking around earmark ban
Sen. Claire McCaskill says Republicans and Democrats alike have quietly circumvented the congressional ban on earmarks, adding 115 funding provisions to a defense authorization bill that would steer $834 million to special projects around the country, including six in Missouri.
McCaskill, D-Mo., a vocal opponent of members directing spending for pet projects in their districts, has compiled a report on the defense requests -- what she says are "earmarks" by another name.
The document charges dozens of lawmakers -- from Republican representatives Howard "Buck" McKeon of California and Vicky Hartzler of Missouri to Democrats Rob Andrews of New Jersey and Kathy Castor of Florida -- with "boldly flaunting" a congressional ban on earmarks.
Spokesmen for those lawmakers sharply dispute McCaskill's characterization. And the provisions involved are different than what traditionally have been labeled as earmarks because these are in a bill that authorizes spending by the Pentagon but does not appropriate the money. That is done in separate legislation.
Besides, said Claude Chafin, a spokesman for McKeon, the provisions have been nixed now anyway.
"Sen. McCaskill's review is interesting, but irrelevant," Chafin said. "The provisions Sen. McCaskill expressed concern about have been removed from the bill... My sympathies to Sen. McCaskill for spending unknown labor hours and resources building a meaningless report attacking provisions that no longer exist."
The final legislation is currently the subject of House-Senate negotiations, and it was not publicly available last week. Chafin didn't dispute that members of the House Armed Services Committee -- McKeon is the chairman -- put the funding provisions into the legislation when it first went through the committee. But he said they did so to shape defense policy, not to steer funds to lawmakers' home districts. And he noted the projects would have had to be competitively bid by the Department of Defense.
Earmarks are specially tagged funding provisions that direct federal dollars to a specific business or project. Critics like McCaskill say the process is heavily influenced by political muscle -- open to abuse, waste and even corruption -- rather than by project merit. In the wake of public outrage over the practice, lawmakers began to clamp down on the practice, and the House and Senate adopted a complete ban on earmarks for the 112th Congress.
But McCaskill's report suggests House lawmakers found a way around their own moratorium -- with Republicans adding 40 earmark provisions and Democrats inserting 75 to the defense bill. The report says that McKeon set up a special fund, dubbed the "Mission Force Enhancement Transfer Fund," that committee members could dip into to cover the cost of their earmarks.
"In effect, the committee carried out the traditional process of earmarking, changing only the timing and the process, but little else," McCaskill's report concludes.
The report said New Jersey Democrat Andrews, for example, added $3 million to the bill for advanced communication technology. The provision mirrored a similar earmark request he had made in the three previous years -- one that benefited Drexel University in Andrews' home district. The report also highlights Castor's efforts to add $2 million to the bill for "university research efforts." That tracked a 2010 request she had made for the University of South Florida's College of Medicine to develop an electronic medical system.
"You can't announce a moratorium and then turn around and do it," McCaskill said in an interview.
In compiling the 16-page report, McCaskill's staff examined 225 amendments that were added to the House version of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that sets policy and funding levels for the Department of Defense. The authorization bill directs the Department of Defense to spend what dollars it receives through the appropriation process on certain programs and priorities. And McCaskill's report suggests that some were so narrowly tailored, DOD officials might have had few, if any, choices what facility or company won the award.
Take, for example, a provision added by Rep. Todd Akin, R-St. Louis County, who is challenging McCaskill in the 2012 Senate race.
He won approval of an amendment that would authorize $4 million to develop "night vision advanced technology" for "force protection sensors." That request is similar to a $5.4 million earmark Akin sought in 2010, before the congressional ban. At that time, Akin said the funds were intended for a Missouri company called Clean Earth Technologies to develop high-tech sensors to protect troops or military installations.
Akin's spokesman, Steve Taylor, said the St. Louis County congressman's provisions were aimed at bolstering research in key areas of defense.
"You've got to have night vision research developed," Taylor said when asked about the $4 million amendment. "That's the job of Congress -- to say we need to invest in this or in that. You just can't be a rubber stamp for the administration."
Taylor said the money will not necessarily go to Clean Earth. "If it's up for a competitive bid, you don't know who is going to get it," he said.
Of the 115 provisions identified in a database compiled by McCaskill's staff, four Akin amendments and two Hartzler amendments are labeled as earmarks. The database doesn't name any other Missouri lawmakers.
The Hartzler amendments would:
» Authorize $20 million for the Warfighter Rapid Acquisition Program "to develop mixed conventional load capability for bomber aircraft." In a May press release, Hartzler touted the additional funding and although she didn't say it would go to Whiteman Air Force Base, where the B-2 bombers are based, she suggests the base will benefit from the bill.
» Authorize $20 million for Air Force construction, as well as land acquisition projects and operational facilities. The provision is very similar to a request her predecessor, ex-Rep. Ike Skelton, made for a "consolidated air operations facility" to be built at Whiteman.
"Hartzler was also able to secure $40 million in Air Force funds for vital national security needs," the congresswoman's office said in a May news release, after the House Armed Services Committee approved the bill. "Missouri's Fort Leonard Wood and Whiteman Air Force Base will continue to play prominent roles in America's national security thanks to approval of the National Defense Authorization Act."
Hartzler's spokesman Steve Walsh said the provisions are not earmarks. "It will be the Air Force, not Congresswoman Hartzler, making decisions on where that money (the $40 million) goes and how it is spent," said Walsh.
Taylor, Akin's spokesman, took his own jab at McCaskill. "Maybe the senator's a little defensive, given that's she's said she wasn't going to support earmarks" but then voted in favor of the Democrats' $787 billion stimulus package, which devoted federal funding to a wide array of energy, infrastructure and education programs.
And Chafin, the spokesman for McKeon, took issue with McCaskill's entire characterization of the committee process -- from the special fund McKeon set up to McCaskill's definition of earmark.
He suggested McCaskill may have political motivations.
"She can't just make up her own definition (of earmark) and then apply it willy-nilly to the committee on which her Senate opponent coincidentally sits," he said.
McCaskill's spokesman dismissed the suggestion that this was motivated by politics, saying the report "speaks for itself."