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Highway Pork Proves Irresistible

Several lawmakers who pledged to abstain from earmarks on appropriations bills will request projects in the highway bill, but they maintain they are staying true to their promise because the requests are not regular earmarks.

Unlike the annual appropriations spending bills, the highway reauthorization bill comes up for consideration only every five years, increasing the pressure on Members to reserve funds for their states.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, explained there was a different vetting and allocation process for highway requests.

“We’ve paid into the [Highway Trust Fund]. … That money is coming back to the state,— he said. “To me, that’s totally different— from an appropriations request.

He added that his office made it clear in his statement that he was rejecting appropriations earmarks, not all projects for his district.

Westmoreland isn’t the only lawmaker faced with the dilemma of forsaking some earmarks and requesting others.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) will also submit requests, according to her spokeswoman.

“Congresswoman Bachmann will submit five requests to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee,— Bachmann spokeswoman Debbee Keller said. “The authorization process is the appropriate venue for addressing local transportation needs since it adheres to strict oversight and accountability standards designed to ensure transparency and public scrutiny over every project at local, state and federal levels — standards that are lacking in the corrupt and broken appropriations earmarking process.—

Some Members say that because they are from “donor states— — states that pay more into the highway fund through fuel taxes than they receive in federal highway funding — they should see more of a return in federal funding through requested projects.

“The fact that the trust fund is so broken puts more pressure on Members to request earmarks,— Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said.

Brady, who is not requesting earmarks in the bill, said that the public pays attention to the spending bills, and this one will be of particular interest because of the last highway bill, which produced Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere,— a project that became synonymous with indefensible earmarks.

One former Congressional staffer said that Members who request transportation earmarks have a greater chance of having the project included in the final bill than those who submit requests to the Appropriations Committee.

“On Appropriations, there is more of a pecking order, there’s leadership, then vulnerable, then everybody else,— said the former staffer, who asked not to be named. “In the highway bill, usually everybody has a pretty good chance of securing the projects they request if the committee requirements are met.—

“In many ways, [highway bill earmarks] were even more pernicious,— Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said.

The latest transportation reauthorization bill is expected to approve as much as $500 billion in spending, twice the amount of its 2005 predecessor, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users.

Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) said that his office plans to follow the lead of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and will request a project only if one of its priorities fall in his district.

“It’s not an 11th-hour earmark dropped in the dead of night,— Kind said. “The spending is dedicated to something specific.—

Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense, said there is little difference between appropriations earmarks and authorizing earmarks.

“There is real cash attached to this bill,— he said. “An earmark is an earmark.—

Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) agreed with Ellis and said he was sticking to his pledge because he still believes the earmark process needs to be reformed.

“I have heard from constituents that are concerned about the five-year nature of the bill,— said Pence, noting that it will be years before he has another chance to request highway projects.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) will not file requests either, their offices said.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said the point of the authorization bill is to one day spend the money and that there was little distinction in the highway bill between an earmark and a “Member-requested high-priority project.—

“If I adopt a baby alligator, it eventually grows up,— he said.

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