Legislator takes stand in support of earmarks

Just when critics had everyone convinced that earmarked projects are evil, along comes Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. Simpson is on a one-man crusade to clean up the image of pork-barrel projects.

His goal is to convince folks who want to put the kibosh on earmarks that the projects are good for America, that they will help balance the budget and curtail the growth of the federal government. "I just want an honest debate," Simpson said in a recent interview. "I get a little tired of the rhetoric in this place," he added, referring to critics who knock members who ask for millions -- if not billions -- of dollars for their districts.

Simpson said he is particularly disturbed because no project that the president requests is ever identified as an earmark. The House Appropriations Committee recently tried to make that point by identifying administration requests in the $91 billion defense and disaster relief supplemental spending bill as earmarks.

Simpson also goes to great lengths to remind people that the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska that caused so much indigestion last year was tucked into the massive highway reauthorization bill; it was not part of the transportation appropriations spending bill.

Simpson has a special interest in trying to keep pork on the menu. He is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and its Energy and Water Development Subcommittee -- the panel that doles out money for such agencies as the Army Corps of Engineers. A former speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives, he's a veteran of political infighting. And as a practicing dentist, he's used to causing people to squirm.

Some fiscal conservatives say that earmarking goes against their principles. Simpson disagrees. And he's circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter that states his case in great detail. First, he makes the timeworn argument that the Constitution gives the power of the purse to Congress.

But he goes further -- actually implying that outlawing earmarking would be unconstitutional. "Ending the practice of earmarking would transfer massive funding authority to the president, and federal agencies, in defiance of the Constitution," Simpson contends.

He goes on to say that earmarking does not increase the federal budget, because each pork project comes under the discretionary spending cap imposed by the budget resolution that Congress passes each year. In addition, earmarking shifts federal money away from the discretion of federal agencies and into the hands of local officials.

"Earmarked dollars generally go to projects that are short-term in nature and small in scope," he wrote. If the money did not go to those projects, it would wind up in Washington-operated programs that would never end, Simpson argued.

Finally, he said, earmarking keeps spending decisions in the hands of members of Congress, rather than giving them to bureaucrats. In other words, earmarks are so conservative that Ronald Reagan would have loved them.

Simpson said he favors "transparency" that would require every member to identify the earmarks he or she requests. He said he already posts his earmarks on his Web site. (Of course, taking credit for money brought back home is not a bad idea.) "I told people if they were wasteful, we'd talk about it," Simpson said.

Some conservatives don't buy Simpson's argument. "Maybe we shouldn't be spending that money at all," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., the most outspoken earmark critic in the House. Flake said the constitutional argument falls apart when politics enter the picture.

In recent years, Republican subcommittee chairmen have been known to refuse earmarks for Democrats who don't support appropriations bills. "Your constitutional right to earmarks only applies if you're a Republican and you support the underlying bill," Flake said.

Flake says that appropriators are only trying to maintain a system that they have benefited from for years. Simpson counters that they are simply trying to respond to the needs of lawmakers and the nation. Time will tell whether Simpson wins or whether Flake can convince members that appropriators are just trying to cover their own assets.

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