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Johanns: Strip Nevada Earmark From Highway Bill

What’s wrong with this picture? The Senate is operating under an earmark moratorium, and yet there’s an earmark embedded deep within the highway bill now being considered in the chamber.

It’s no wonder Congress enjoys a 10 percent approval rating. This earmark isn’t listed explicitly, but page 463 contains legislative language directing appropriated funds to a specific state, falling under the definition of an earmark as outlined by Rule 44 in the Standing Rules of the Senate.

Because the Senate has a no-earmark pledge, and because President Barack Obama has promised to veto any bill containing an earmark, it follows necessarily that this provision should be stripped from the highway bill, and I’ve offered an amendment to do just that.

The provision in question explicitly identifies a section (an old earmark, as it happens) from the 2005 highway bill. This provision is so specific that we know it applies solely to an earmark to fund the Nevada portion of a maglev rail project from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. That project has since proved so expensive that even the additional earmarked funding could not get the project off the ground. Taxpayer dollars appropriated for the earmark — $45 million — have sat unspent for years. The highway bill before us explicitly identifies this money and gives it to “such state” as was identified previously — in this case, Nevada.

According to Senate rules, that’s an earmark. The provision directs a specific amount of funding to a specific state by rescinding an old earmark and replacing it with a new one. Instead of returning the money to the federal Treasury for deficit reduction, the provision spends it through a new earmark, directed once again to Nevada.

Some claim this provision isn’t an earmark because it’s not “new spending.” Setting aside the fact that the Senate’s definition of an earmark does not mention anything about new spending, let’s step back and consider the implications for a moment of accepting such an argument.

By virtue of the earmark moratorium, it is understood that the Senate will not pass a bill containing earmarks. This is the pledge we have made to our constituents. If this provision to redirect the 2005 earmark is allowed to stay in the highway bill, it would undermine the original purpose of the earmark moratorium.

We have pledged to the American people that the practice of earmarking funds to specific states is on hiatus. Enabling this earmark in Washington and then returning home to tell folks we don’t do earmarks would be shamefully hypocritical.

Equally troubling is the precedent we would be establishing by accepting the “but it’s not new spending” argument.

We would be opening the door for any Senator to identify appropriated but unspent funds and reappropriate them to pet projects. Why? Because it wouldn’t be an earmark; it’s not “new spending.”

Not only that, a Senator could do it anonymously. How? Because that language wouldn’t be an earmark, so Rule 44 wouldn’t be triggered. The purpose of Rule 44 is to guarantee that all earmark requests are transparently reported. This Nevada provision not only brings back the practice of earmarking but does so dishonestly and surreptitiously.

The year I arrived in the Senate, 2009, I took a stand against earmarks. I believed then, as I do now, that the earmark process lacks openness and transparency.

This provision slipped into the highway bill on page 463 is a perfect example of the abuse of allocating tax dollars, which led to the Senate earmark moratorium and the president’s pledge to veto them.

Because of this pledge, the earmark should be stripped to give the bill a fighting chance of becoming law. It is simply unacceptable to use taxpayer dollars as bargaining chips while we’re staring down a fourth-straight year of trillion-dollar deficits and watching our total debt creeping toward $16 trillion.

The federal government is borrowing 42 cents of every dollar spent and should not borrow more to give the state of Nevada a gift no other state will receive.

I will continue pushing to strike this earmark. We owe an earmark-free bill to the American people.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) is ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Oversight.

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