The Senate on Wednesday rejected a proposal to strip from the omnibus spending bill a series of earmarks associated with a lobbying firm now under federal investigation, despite warnings from reformers that lawmakers would be forced to answer for their vote in the coming election cycle.
By a vote of 43-52, the Senate defeated the amendment sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). The amendment would have eliminated 13 provisions connected to the PMA Group lobbying firm, which was raided by the FBI in November as part of an investigation of potentially improper campaign contributions.
The vote on the PMA amendment was closer than expected, with a number of Democrats waiting until the waning moments to cast their votes. The two Colorado Democrats split their votes on the amendment, with Sen. Michael Bennet — who faces re-election in two years — voting for it, and Sen. Mark Udall, who has a full six-year term, voting against it.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) voted for Coburn’s PMA amendment. At the end of the vote, McCaskill voted with Democratic leadership and against Coburn, though she had spoken out against earmarks earlier in the day.
Prior to the vote, Coburn warned his colleagues that, “Anyone who votes against my amendment on PMA — they’re going to have a lot of ’splaining to do.—
Individuals listed as PMA employees have made more than $2.7 million worth of political donations in the past decade, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has backed Coburn’s efforts on earmarks, agreed, arguing that a vote against the amendment was not just a vote to support the projects, but would set a new, lower bar for when Congress should avoid funding projects tainted by scandal. It is “not only business as usual in Washington, but we’ve hit a new low,— McCain said.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rejected those arguments and sought to cast the debate as a vote over whether lawmakers questioned the intentions of their colleagues.
“We can’t start picking and eliminating earmarks because we think we know who the lobbyists may be,— Reid said, noting that no lobbyists’ names appear in the legislation, while lawmakers sponsoring the earmarks do. “Lobbyists don’t face the voters. Lobbyists are not accountable for the merits of these projects. … Congressmen and Senators are accountable for these projects,— Reid said, adding that, “Every one of these … has a Member of Congress’ name by it. That’s the person responsible.—
Anti-earmark activists have dominated the debate over the omnibus spending bill, but they ultimately lost the votes as Senators in both parties rose to defend the practice of directing spending to individual projects in their states.
Railing against the more than 8,000 earmarks in the 2009 omnibus appropriations bill, members of both parties took to the Senate floor to decry wasteful spending and “pay-for-play— politics.
The Senate on Tuesday defeated McCain’s proposal to replace the omnibus spending bill with a continuing resolution that would do away with all of the earmarks in the bill. The Senate also on Wednesday defeated a second Coburn amendment to strip out 11 earmarks that the Oklahoma Senator singled out as being wasteful. That amendment was defeated by a wider margin, 34-61.
Coburn’s PMA amendment targeted earmarks of Democrats and Republicans alike, including five projects that were co-sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
Specter told Roll Call, “These are earmarks which have been very closely examined by my office. … They are very solid projects.—
One of the earmarks Specter supported is a $1.2 million project for PPG Inc. in Pittsburgh to develop energy-efficient window coatings; the others were less than $100,000 each for colleges and hospitals around the state.
“Nobody from PMA talked to me about any of these projects,— Specter said. These are “relatively small sums of money where I know more about these universities than the bureaucrats in the Department of Education or the Department of Health and Human Services.—
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said he fears that with all of the rhetoric, Americans might be “reaching the conclusion that earmarks are evil.— He argued that there are important and successful government programs that have been funded through earmarks. “Breast cancer research is in the Defense bill — it’s an earmark,— Inouye said, as are major weapons systems like the C-17 cargo plane. “Earmarks are not evil,— he said.
But some Democrats are joining Republicans in opposing them.
Two of President Barack Obama’s closest allies in the Senate, Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and McCaskill, have both been active on the issue.
On Wednesday, Feingold joined McCain and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in reintroducing a line-item veto bill aimed at combating earmarks.
The legislation would give Obama the ability to target specific spending by allowing the president to require Congress to hold an expedited vote on funding for projects he opposes.
McCain and Feingold, who teamed up in a successful push to reform the nation’s campaign finance laws, have made earmark reform the top priority for their renewed partnership this year. And while their reform bill faces a major uphill battle, both McCain and Feingold on Wednesday argued the number of earmarks loaded into the omnibus makes the case for why reform is needed.
“In order to meet the great economic challenges we are facing, we’ll need to tighten our belts and work across party lines. … Congress should set an example by passing this legislation which takes a serious step toward curbing wasteful spending,— Feingold said.
McCaskill, meanwhile, in a floor speech Wednesday harshly criticized the earmarks in the bill but also accused Republicans of hypocrisy on the issue.
McCaskill noted that despite the GOP’s attacks on earmarks, Republican lawmakers are responsible for some 40 percent of the projects included in the bill.
Republicans “went on and on and on during the stimulus bill about earmarking. No fewer than 17 different Republican Senators stood up and absolutely, with righteous indignation, talked about the pet projects in the stimulus bill. And guess what? Every single one of them has earmarks in this bill,— McCaskill noted.
Conservatives warned that the defeat on the Senate floor will not temper their passion for attacking earmarks.
Ryan Ellis, tax policy director for Americans for Tax Reform, said earmarks matter in part because they make it easier for Congress to pass larger bills that expand the reach of government. Earmarks for their districts are the enticements to get conservatives to vote for a bill they would otherwise oppose in principle. “You never win those until you take care of the earmarks,— Ellis said. “You take away the earmarks, you take away their excuse to vote for it.—
“If you take all the earmarks out of an otherwise big authorization bill, [a Republican member] will say, There is nothing in this for my district, it is just a generalized expansion of government,— which is easier to vote against.
Dennis Whitfield, executive vice president of the American Conservative Union, said: “Earmarks do matter. They do count if for no other reason than a statement of principle. … Nothing good ever comes from these earmarks, and the taxpayers don’t know what they are paying for.—
Whitfield said he is unconcerned that the anti-earmark crowd keeps losing floor votes. “There is efficacy of losing,— Whitfield said. “Newt Gingrich lost twice before he won. [Obama] lost a Democratic primary for Congress. … It’s OK to lose once in a while.—