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‘Airdrops’ for the Vulnerable

Congress is apparently hoping the next major disaster to hit the nation will strike in the district of a vulnerable Member.

A Roll Call analysis of the earmarks added to the omnibus appropriations bill indicates that more than half of “airdropped earmarks” — provisions that had not previously been approved in either chamber — were targeted to districts represented either by a member of the Appropriations Committee or a Member considered vulnerable for the 2008 elections. All told, of the 298 identified airdropped earmarks included in the bill over the past several weeks, 174 will go either to members of an Appropriations committee or to vulnerable incumbents. Members of the House and Senate Democratic leadership teams accounted for an additional 18 airdropped earmarks.

The omnibus package was headed toward Senate approval Tuesday night and then back to the House for final approval.

Observers say it is no surprise that the parties are targeting their earmarks to the politically powerful and the politically vulnerable; what makes the omnibus bill remarkable is the ability to so clearly track the trend, as this year Congress is releasing names with each earmark for the first time. Additionally, Republicans and outside watchdog groups point to a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) in which Kilpatrick explicitly raises the issue of using earmarks to help the election chances of vulnerable Members.

“This is the problem with how Congress sees the budget. It’s the currency of re-election,” said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog organization that has been critical of the earmarking process.

Allison argues that while earmarking is not inherently bad, it has become too tied to politics in recent years, resulting in leadership in both chambers — and of both parties — directing funds not simply on the basis of merit but on electoral need. “This is the same thing Republicans did in 2005 and 2006 that cost them the majority,” Allison said, adding that who gets earmarks “has nothing to do with where the money should go and everything to do with propping up incumbents.”

Indeed, according to the review, 48 of the airdropped earmarks went to 16 Republican incumbents in the House and Senate facing difficult re-elections and 21 Democrats. While most Republican vulnerables each received a single airdropped earmark, 31 went to Democrats, with Reps. Heath Shuler (N.C.), Jim Marshall (Ga.) and Ciro Rodriguez (Texas) receiving multiple earmarks.

Some Members did significantly better than others. For instance, Shuler received three earmarks totaling more than $10 million, though one of those also was requested by Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and was worth $3.733 million.

The trend is particularly acute in the disaster mitigation grant program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The omnibus bill added 95 earmarks worth $51 million in that account, only eight of which were requested by Members who are neither endangered nor appropriators and/or leadership.

In February the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a list of 29 “Frontline” Members, or potentially vulnerable incumbents. Twenty of those Members received airdropped FEMA mitigation earmarks in the omnibus bill. Three other freshmen who were not on the DCCC list — Reps. Bruce Braley (Iowa), Earl Perlmutter (Colo.), and Nancy Boyda (Kan.) — also received earmarks in the FEMA account, as did Utah’s Jim Matheson, a four-term Member who took 59 percent of the vote in his most recent election but represents a heavily Republican district.

Republicans got 33 airdropped FEMA earmarks in the bill (one project is bipartisan). Of these, 12 were given to Members facing tough re-election races, and 16 others went to Appropriations Committee members.

The FEMA grants are relatively small earmarks; only a handful are larger than $1 million, and the largest is for $3.4 million, requested by Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) for the North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. Price is the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), whose margin of victory in his 2006 re-election was 329 votes, received two FEMA earmarks for the town of Kannapolis, N.C., totaling $1.25 million.

FEMA mitigation grants are intended to help communities prepare for disasters, including activities such as elevating buildings to avoid flooding, installing or expanding culverts, installing storm shutters or hurricane-proof roofs and the like.

FEMA says the grants are provided on a competitive basis, but an earmarked project would avoid that competition.

Scott Lilly, the former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday that it should come as no surprise that leadership targets earmarks to Members who may be at risk.

“When there is a decision on earmarks within an account, one of the factors that is brought into play is the person that’s requesting it — ‘Is this somebody that needs help?’” Lilly said. That kind of political calculation is combined with an assessment of whether it is a high-quality project and the area actually needs the project, Lilly said.

Lilly said it is naive to assume that earmarking — or any other legislative process — would be immune from political calculations. “The legislative process is inherently political,” Lilly said. “Both sides in this are hoping to do a number of things to help them secure the majority and keep it.”

But conservatives jumped on the Kilpatrick letter to Pelosi and were expected to call on the leader to investigate whether appropriators made decisions on earmark allocations based on electoral needs.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) on Tuesday charged that the letter proved leadership was actively using federal funds as a way to bolster their Members’ election chances. “What we see is the Democrat leadership talking openly about using the earmark process for election purposes,” Hensarling said, arguing that Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have yet to learn the lessons of the 2006 election. “Clearly one of the reasons Republicans were turned out in 2006 was the perception, and to a certain extent, the reality,” that corruption and mismanagement of federal funds was rife within the GOP. However, Hensarling did acknowledge that use of earmarks to prop up incumbents is not simply a partisan issue and said he hopes more Republicans will come to accept the need to change. “I hope that as time goes by that more and more people in my Republican Conference … will add their voices to ours looking to reform the process.”

Hensarling said that at this point it is unclear whether he will request an investigation into the issue by either the Federal Elections Commission or the Department of Justice. A spokesman for Pelosi rejected any complaints of impropriety in the earmarking process. “Requests for earmarks are based on the merits of the request and not political consideration,” Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said.

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