$2 Billion for Dam Project in Debt Deal ‘Not an Earmark,’ Reid Explains (Updated)

Posted October 16, 2013 at 8:18pm

Updated 12:20 p.m. | A new provision in the final Senate debt limit agreement isn’t an earmark, though the outward appearance is that it would give Kentucky and Illinois favorable treatment.

The long-sought provision would increase the authorization level for the Olmsted Lock and Dam project along the Ohio River between the two states to about $2.9 billion from less than $1 billion.

Of course, the location of the Army Corps of Engineers construction project generated outrage among conservative critics of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The Kentucky Republican was a key negotiator along with Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the deal to reopen the government through January 2014 and extend the nation’s borrowing authority at least through the month after that.

“This is not an earmark,” Reid said when asked about the Olmsted project at a post-vote news conference. Reid clearly anticipated the questioning, because he had a response prepared for the cameras.

“It saves the … taxpayers lots of money. It enables the Corps of Engineers to continue a project,” Reid said. “Had we not done this so-called anomaly the Corps of Engineers would have had to spend before the last day of December $80 million to stop the project.

“This project has been ongoing since 1988,” Reid added. “There’s no need to point fingers at anyone. … It’s in fact saved the government money.”

A source not involved with the Senate deal-making confirmed Reid’s explanation.

President Barack Obama’s budget proposed similar language for the dam and lock replacement in his annual budget request, and similar language has appeared in authorizing and appropriating measures for water projects on both sides of the Rotunda.

Generally speaking, such provisions aren’t considered earmarks — though it would be no surprise if McConnell’s seniority and negotiating clout gave the project a lift.

Still, the Senate Conservatives Fund, an outside group that has frequently bashed McConnell, weighed in once again before many on Capitol Hill had even noticed the language.

“This is an insult to all the Kentucky families who don’t want to pay for Obamacare and don’t want to shoulder any more debt,” said a statement from the group.

Update 12:20 p.m.

McConnell pointed out to the Lexington Herald-Leader in a telephone interview Thursday that any senator could have objected to including the provision in the deal.

“Every senator had a chance to review it and none — none — asked for it to be taken out,” McConnell said. “It’s pretty rare that you actually save money in a spending bill.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander made the request to include the dam project, the Herald-Leader reported. The Tennessee Republican is the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. That panel has jurisdiction over the Army Corps of Engineers.