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Porter: Earmark ban one way of fighting ‘subtle forms of corruption’

Former law professor one of three House Democrats vying for open Senate seat

Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., called budget earmarks one of the "subtle forms of corruption" she would work to eliminate if elected to the Senate.
Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., called budget earmarks one of the "subtle forms of corruption" she would work to eliminate if elected to the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When it came to directing federal funds for projects and causes back home, the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California was among the chamber’s most committed members. 

Feinstein, who died in September, obtained $145 million in earmarks individually or in combination with fellow California Sen. Alex Padilla in that chamber’s spending bills for the current fiscal year, which put her in the top 20 among senators.

Now Rep. Katie Porter, one of three House Democrats seeking to fill Feinstein’s former seat, is calling for an end to earmarks, which Senate appropriators who manage them call “congressionally directed spending.” She says such special projects reinforce inequities and drain resources from underserved communities.

“The problem with earmarks is that they allow elected officials with political objectives to substitute their political needs with the neutral advice of experts about where resources are needed,’’ Porter said in an interview.

“And we know from the data and from the research that earmarks disproportionately flow to wealthier and whiter and more Republican communities,’’ she added. “They do not, in fact, flow to low-income communities, communities of color and to indigenous communities.”

‘Shake up the Senate’

Eliminating earmarks is among the proposals Porter is pitching as part of her “shake up the Senate” plan. She is also reiterating her call to abolish the filibuster, ban senators from trading stocks or accepting contributions from federal lobbyists and corporate PACs.

A former law professor, Porter has built a reputation as a champion for good government who has never taken corporate PAC or federal lobbyists’ donations.

She said her proposal aims to address “the subtle forms of corruption” within the Senate, an environment she blames on both Democrats and Republicans.

“Both parties have refused to take some of the actions that we must take to clean up our democracy,’’ Porter said.

She was the only House Democrat who did not file requests for earmarks last year, putting her in the company of about 30 percent of the House GOP conference. In the Senate, all but two Democrats have asked for earmarks in recent years, joining a minority of Republicans in that chamber who have been participating.

Supporters of earmarks say the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse and lawmakers know the needs of their districts better than federal bureaucrats who otherwise would get to decide where funds go. The process of applying for and receiving the funds is also more transparent and restricted than it was in years when earmarks led to scandals.

Lee, Schiff requests

Porter’s two main Democratic rivals for the Senate seat, Reps. Barbara Lee and Adam B. Schiff, have a different view on earmarks: A July 2023 analysis by CQ Roll Call found that Lee requested $15.9 million in earmarks and Schiff requested $12.3 million. Both Schiff and Lee have criticized Porter for rejecting earmarks.

Porter says earmarks haven’t proved to be an effective tool to address what she says is one of California’s biggest problems: the lack of affordable housing. 

“That’s a good example of how earmarks tend to go to certain communities [and] established organizations,” she said. 

Porter is also promoting a bill barring members of Congress from trading stocks and would expand on a 2012 law known as the STOCK Act that formally barred insider trading by lawmakers based on their access to “material, nonpublic” information derived from their positions. It also required members to file timely disclosures when they buy or sell shares.

The STOCK Act 2.0 would also apply the ban to other government officials, including the president and vice president, Supreme Court justices and leaders of the Federal Reserve, along with their spouses and dependents.

Lee and Schiff also back legislation governing the trading and ownership of individual stocks by members of Congress.

“We have a rule that you’re supposed to disclose stock trades that you make, and yet every year we see dozens of members, Democrats and Republicans, violate that rule,’’ she said. “So it’s very, very clear that the problem is the rule itself is just not working and we need to come up with a stronger solution.”

Under California’s electoral system, all candidates will compete in the nonpartisan March 5 primary, with the top two finishers qualifying for the November ballot.

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