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Just Don’t Call Them Earmarks

Operating under very tight budget constraints, Congress will keep federal spending flat next year — except for the wild horses of the West, who get an extra $12 million.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) unveiled a bill Tuesday to fund the government through the rest of the year that is in the spirit of Washington’s new austerity, saying the measure “prohibits funding for Congressional earmarks.”

While that is technically true, the bill does include money specifically aimed at addressing Members’ pet projects, from uranium mining to protecting presidential candidates to rounding up wild horses.

The continuing resolution, which the House approved Wednesday night, does not increase overall spending for the fiscal year. But it shifts money around, boosting funds for programs favored by the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats.

Obey took to the floor Wednesday to argue, in essence, that there is no way to simply extend last year’s spending levels, because things change over time.

“I’m sure we’ll hear lots of talk about the number of changes in this bill. The number of hard choices we had to make in this package to try to keep Uncle Sam from becoming Uncle Scrooge this holiday season,” Obey said. “The committee has done its dead level best, within the constraints under which we’re operating, to make some modest adjustments to salvage some investments which over the long haul just might create more jobs than tax breaks for millionaires.”

Some of the measures are major, such as $5.7 billion more for Pell education grants for lower-income families and $550 million for the Race to the Top, the competitive grants awarded by the U.S. Education Department to school districts.

But there is also a bevy of more obscure items that are getting a boost in the bill.

For example, the legislation allows the Bureau of Land Management to “establish up to 10-year contracts with ranchers that care for excess wild horses and burros,” and increases the bureau’s budget by just under $12 million “to maintain the thousands of wild horses and burros in its care.”

A Democratic staffer pointed out that the bureau can’t simply let the horses it is caring for die.

Likewise, the legislation provides $30 million for the U.S. Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Fund, a project launched in 2009 to reduce forest fires on federal lands in key areas of the country. In 2010, the program received $10 million and launched 10 pilot projects to conduct forest thinning and controlled burns under the theory that “it is cheaper to modify the forest and do all that work before hand” than to respond to catastrophic fire events, said Eytan Krasilovsky of a forestry organization called the Forest Guild.

The bill also increases the budget of the Secret Service by $14 million to prepare for the 2012 presidential campaign. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said most of that money will be used to buy secure vehicles and related equipment to ferry presidential candidates around the country. The president and vice president travel with their own vehicles, but for other candidates, presumably mostly Republicans in 2012, the Secret Service stations equipment around the country and makes it available when candidates come through that region.

The CR also includes $624 million more for nuclear weapons programs, money that would only be spent if the Senate approves the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which President Barack Obama is pushing for but leading Senate Republicans want to put off until the new session.

The spending measure also boosts money for White House priorities such as encouraging the Securities and Exchange Commission to combat financial fraud as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. In the wake of the BP oil spill, it provides funds to expedite reforms in offshore drilling programs by the newly created Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Republicans complain that Democrats should not be using the continuing resolution to pick and choose winners.

A news release issued by Republicans on the Appropriations Committee before the House vote Wednesday said, “This CR will be a last ditch effort to avoid a government shutdown while continuing to fund many of the Democrats’ political priorities.”

The Republicans say that the budget calls for cuts to some programs in defense and the Census Bureau to pay for the Pell Grants and the implementation of the financial reform law. Instead, they argue that those cuts should be used to reduce the deficit.

Officials with Citizens Against Government Waste, a spending watchdog group, say they identified one earmark in the bill: $15 million for the International Fund for Ireland, which was established in 1986 to promote economic regeneration and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Congress has routinely approved the earmark since the 1980s, according to Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste. It does not have a named sponsor in the bill.

Paige said the earmark was first sponsored by former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, an Irish-American Democrat from Massachusetts who died in 1994. But she said there have been reports that the money is spent on such things as fashion shows.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said the Irish fund appropriation is an example of funding that may have been initially made with good intentions but now deserves to die.

“That is such a ridiculous waste of money,” he said. Chaffetz said the fund is being discontinued in Ireland but added, “They will cash our check.”

He also lamented that the earmark sponsor has routinely been anonymous.

“Someone should show the political guts to join me on the floor to debate it,” he said.

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