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McCaskill Restarts the Debate on Earmarks

Members of the House Armed Services Committee are defending their version of the Defense authorization bill, disputing Sen. Claire McCaskill’s charges that the legislation includes forbidden earmarks.

Both Democrats and Republicans on the panel pushed back late last week against the Missouri Democrat’s characterization of the legislation as including a billion-dollar slush fund that used amendments to create a process tantamount to earmarks.

The legislation was the first test of the House Republicans’ pledged earmark moratorium. And while traditional earmarks were prohibited in the bill, Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) did create a process by which Members could draft amendments that would direct extra funding to project categories.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a senior member of the Armed Services panel, said the process of using “plus-ups” in the bill complies with the House Republicans earmark ban.

“Instead of putting money for specific projects or a specific place, we put it in for a generic thing,” the Maryland Republican said, noting that companies must competitively bid for these contracts. Bartlett said the funding was necessary for the country’s military defense to stay competitive with China and Russia.

Democratic Rep. Robert Andrews also disputed McCaskill’s allegation.

“I disagree with the Senator. I think that she is unduly broadly defining what an earmark is,” the New Jersey lawmaker said.

Andrews put in a “plus-up” for the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. But he contends it isn’t an earmark because although Lockheed Martin is a contractor for the system now, the company will be only one of the bidders on the infusion of funds and won’t be guaranteed to secure the contract.

“There is specific language in the bill that the Department of Defense must conduct a competitive process to determine what to do with any of that extra money,” Andrews said.

The dustup over the National Defense Authorization Act comes after McCaskill sent a May 26 letter to McKeon and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) saying she would vociferously oppose the House-passed bill because she believed it was structured to get around the House GOP’s moratorium on earmarks.

“If necessary, I will also seek language in a conference between the House and Senate that will ensure that any earmarks included in your bill, should they survive to become law, will undergo the most extensive scrutiny and transparency possible upon implementation,” McCaskill wrote.

The longtime opponent of earmarks also said it was “disappointing and disingenuous” that Armed Services had “instituted a process that allows members of your Committee to circumvent the ban through the use of non-transparent amendments that effectively act as traditional earmarks.”

McCaskill’s staff is doing a thorough analysis of the House-passed bill, according to a Congressional aide.

McKeon spokesman Josh Holly disputed McCaskill’s claims.

“In the words of the former Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), we would encourage the good Senator from the former chairman’s home state to ‘read the bill,'” Holly said in a statement. “All of the information which she claims was not provided to the public has been available on the committee’s website throughout the process.”

Smith also said he viewed the process as in line with the Republican earmark ban.

“The people who are looking for earmarks the way they were looking for witches in Salem, I can’t offer much of an opinion about,” the Washington state lawmaker said. “I mean, the thing is you can’t answer that question because ask 10 people and they have 10 different definitions of what an earmark is.”

Still, open government and anti-earmark groups have also called the process problematic because McKeon created a separate fund — the Mission Force Enhancement Transfer Fund — by taking money from other programs within the bill instead of using it to pay down the country’s debt and because the measures were adopted with dozens of amendments bundled together instead of conducting separate votes for each one.

Open government advocate Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation said these are de facto earmarks because Members of Congress are directing money where often only one contractor can compete or where a current contractor has a leg up in any competitive process.

Taxpayers for Common Sense wrote in an email Friday that “it looks like we have a lot further to go down the road to meritorious spending nirvana than we hoped for.”

In particular, McCaskill in her letter pointed to an amendment by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) to put $7 million toward “innovative nanomaterials and nonmanufacturing processes.”

McCaskill alleges in her letter that the money is being directed with the expectation that it will go to a university, which also was quoted in the lawmaker’s press release about the funding, in Gibson’s district. However, SUNY Albany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering is not in Gibson’s district and instead resides in an adjacent district, according to his spokeswoman, Stephanie Valle.

She said that “certainly the Congressman believes their application would be competitive, but it’s not up for us to determine.”