Congressional earmarks: pork or proper?

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Second-District congressman John Kline was recently in the news for his unusual stand on earmark spending: He refused to request any for his district.

“If I’m in there fighting for my projects on the merits and I get $7 million, and somebody who’s been here longer gets $200 million, that’s not a program I want to participate in,” Kline said recently.

Is this a principled stand against pork, or cutting off his nose to spite his face — or his district? Now that some of his colleagues have released their lists of sponsored earmarks in the just-passed House omnibus spending bill, we can ask whether it’s all seniority and pork or if these projects are really necessary and good for Minnesota.

Congressman Jim Oberstar, representing northern Minnesota, announced this week that a total of $90 million in federal funding would come to Minnesota under his requests. Several of his requests totaled more than $1 million, including…

* $55 million for the Northstar Commuter Rail project
* $4 million for operation and maintenance of the Duluth-Superior Harbor
* $3.5 million for the Koochiching Forest Legacy project, which, according to the DNR website, “will protect more than 51,000 acres of forest – almost 80 square miles – in Itasca and Koochiching counties.”
* $1.8 million for the Army Corps of Engineers Section 569 program, which funds water and sewer infrastructure projects in communities across Northeast Minnesota

One item on Oberstar’s list that stands out is a $1.5 million request for reconstructing the I-35/TH95 interchange in North Branch, a town of 8,000 located 45 minutes north of the Twin Cities. However, it is understandable that infrastructure projects in Oberstar’s district, especially in the rapidly growing area of Chisago County, would have a draw for a transportation-oriented congressman like Oberstar. And while one might question the wisdom of earmarking $47,000 to train and equip police officers in northeast Minnesota with 100 Taser weapons, in the big scheme of things, it is difficult to call such an expenditure (small, oriented toward the member’s home district, and focused on public safety) “pork.”

Freshman Keith Ellison, representing Minneapolis and several of its suburbs, also issued several requests that were eventually included in the final spending bill. He co-sponsored the same $55 million for the Northstar Commuter Rail as Oberstar, and added to that $10.4 million for the Central Corridor Light Rail project (it will be interesting to see what the state legislature does with this project in the upcoming session). Only one of Ellison’s other earmarks (an army medical research project for Phygen Inc.) totaled more than $1 million, and all were focused on social services, public safety, and water infrastructure projects in and around Minneapolis.

Ellison’s fellow freshman Tim Walz hit on considerable success in the spending bill, securing more than $1 million in funding for transportation projects in his southern Minnesota district; $1.3 million for a National Guard training facility in Mankato; and a total of $35.6 million for labor, energy and water, agriculture and environmental projects. Reading the descriptions of these projects, it is again difficult to identify any obvious examples of so-called “pork-barrel” spending. One might quibble with calling a storm water management upgrade for St. Charles a Homeland Security project, but the merits of such a project are clear to those who were hit hard by the 2007 floods across southeast Minnesota.

So, to address Congressman Kline’s critique of the earmark system — that it is based on seniority — how did the freshmen do? Leaving out the Northstar Rail project, which was co-sponsored by more senior members, Keith Ellison secured around $16 million for his district. Tim Walz secured more than $35 million. Again leaving out the Northstar Rail project, 30-year veteran Oberstar secured between $35 million and $40 million for Eighth District-focused projects.

Doesn’t sound like a huge disparity to me.

DFLer Steve Sarvi, who is running for the DFL nod to oppose Kline next year, recently wrote of the incumbent’s decision:

For every “bridge to nowhere” — the infamous Alaskan project that, it bears noting, Kline voted for in 2005 — there are many projects for which Minnesota’s congressional delegation can and should seek federal dollars. These projects are not extravagant or wasteful — and members of Congress who seek them in the interest of the people they represent are not corrupt; they are doing their job.

It’s almost certain that Congressmen Oberstar, Walz and Ellison would agree. Noting that Kline voted for the 2005 spending bill may be a bit of a campaign ploy — Kline didn’t vote specifically for the infamous project earmarked by Alaska Sen. Ted “Series of Tubes” Stevens, but rather for a large spending bill with hundreds of earmarks just like the bill that just passed the House — but reality in Washington has changed, if only incrementally. Total earmarks are down drastically since Kline’s Republican leadership was booted in 2006, and we can clearly see that in the cases of three of his Minnesotan colleagues, earmark requests are being focused on vital services for our state.

Congressman Kline should be lauded for his stand against corruption. However, calling the entire system corrupt and simply throwing one’s hands up and walking away might not be the best decision for those Kline is sworn to represent. Of course, the entire debate may be moot — despite the fact that the omnibus bill meets President Bush’s spending limits, it is still subject to his veto pen, and it is currently unclear whether Bush will exercise the veto on this bill.

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