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Campbell Sinks His Water Project

Anti-earmark crusader Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) tanked his own bill to authorize $2.5 million for a water project in his Orange County district earlier this month after he heard that pro-earmark forces were preparing to use the project to embarrass him.

He contends that his bill, which would authorize federal spending on a desalination plant in Dana Point, is not technically an earmark. “It’s simply to let them go compete for federal funds,” he said. The bill was scheduled for the floor for Feb. 13.

Campbell defended the project in the previous Congress, arguing that the new technology that would be developed could end up being a model for other desalination projects.

But Campbell acknowledged that whether the bill is technically an earmark — or whether it was meritorious — could be beside the point if he were tarred for supporting a local project after he had taken such a hard stand against earmarks.

“The minute I heard that people who were against earmark reform were going to use this, I pulled it,” Campbell said. “They are looking for anything they can find, and that includes Republicans. … I don’t want to give them even any rope to pull.”

Steve Ellis, vice president for programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense, applauded Campbell for his leadership on fighting earmarks, but he said Campbell’s bill appears to have all the markings of an earmark.

“To include a particular project does smack of an earmark even though the committee has said this is not an earmark,” Ellis said.

Campbell is the chairman of the Budget and Spending Task Force of the conservative Republican Study Committee, and has frequently attacked others’ earmarks on the House floor. He has helped lead an internal battle — so far unsuccessful — to get House Republicans to unilaterally ditch all of their earmarks this year to show voters that the party is serious.

Campbell said the bill would have been used by pro-earmark forces to undermine his anti-earmark message, “when they do thousands that are much more egregious.”

Campbell said that even if the project were considered an earmark, the bill introduction preceded his no-new-earmarks pledge and technically would not violate it. (The bill, which had been scheduled for the suspension calendar on Feb. 13, was accompanied by a certification — required under House rules — that it does not contain an earmark.)

Under earmark rule changes he backs, bills such as his would be part of the earmarking process because all earmarks would have to be authorized in advance.

“This is how you are supposed to do it. But it doesn’t matter, I’m not doing any more. I don’t want to provide any distractions to the cause.”

Campbell said he told Dana Point authorities that he would not request an appropriations earmark for the desalination plant but would be happy to support an authorization bill. He said he called them this month to tell them he was pulling the bill and would no longer support it.

“They were disappointed and said this sets them back a year and a half,” Campbell said. But he said sacrificing some projects in his district is worth the broader cause. “Eliminating or reforming earmarks is so much more important than a desalination plant anywhere,” he said on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Campbell met with Orange County water officials, who told him that they succeeded in getting Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) to request a $2.3 million appropriations earmark for the desalination plant on their behalf. Campbell said he would propose an amendment on the House floor to strip the earmark if it is included.

“It’s not good for our taxpayers to pay lots more in taxes to get a tiny piece back,” he said.

Rebecca Rudman, a spokeswoman for Calvert, said it was premature to say whether Calvert would request the earmark because he has neither formally received the request nor made any decisions.

Campbell said his criticism of earmarking has led to a backlash from fellow Republicans who support the current system and have badmouthed him to his constituents. “There are absolutely Republicans out there who are trying to undermine my status in my district,” he said, declining to name names.

Campbell also said interests in his district have been angered by his decision not to sponsor earmarks.

“I’m saying no dozens and dozens and dozens of times,” Campbell said. “It’s so much easier to say yes. That’s why we need to reform the system.”

It’s not the first time Campbell has gone against the interests of a project in his district. Last year, he proposed eliminating all of the earmarks in the Energy and water development spending bill, including a water project of his own, and questioned whether the federal government should be paying for local projects like sewer systems. That amendment failed miserably.

Campbell hasn’t always been pure in his opposition to local projects.

Campbell wrote a letter a year ago to the Interior Department to request funding for a different local water project in Irvine, Calif.

That project had been earmarked for funding in House and Senate appropriations bills under the Republican-led 109th Congress. When Democrats took charge, they omitted domestic earmarks, effectively wiping out thousands of earmarks, including the Irvine project. Campbell asked the department to fund the project anyway.

In his letter, Campbell called the lack of earmarks “an anomaly of the process” and suggested that “deference be given to the clear wishes of the Congress” even though they did not become law.

Campbell defended the letter, saying it is far different for a Member to write a letter on behalf of a project than it is to earmark it and prevent a competitive process. “As a matter of fact, they didn’t fund it,” he said.

Campbell said he has become increasingly opposed to earmarks after pursuing a small number since his election in 2005.

“The whole thing has been a learning process,” Campbell said. “The more I see how abusive and corrupt this whole thing is, the more I want to do everything to reform or stop it.”

Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.

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