Stevens, Young defend earmarks

Published 3:52 pm Monday, December 24, 2007

Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young are defending the use of congressional earmarks and their ability to direct piles of federal dollars to projects back home in Alaska.

Stevens placed dozens of earmarks in the appropriation bills, making him second only to Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran in sponsoring the most earmarks in the Senate.

Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, acknowledges that the use of earmarks has become controversial.

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“I think there’s a small group that is focusing on earmarks and the media is focusing on earmarks, but we still get requests from the mayors and officials of small cities and villages,” Alaska’s senior senator said.

Young also is proud of the money he’s able to send back to the state. He said that’s exactly why voters sent him to Washington.

“I listen and I provide. That’s what I’m elected for,” Young said. “You show me a congressman who says, I’m not going to have any earmarks, and I’m not going to listen, and I’m not going to provide, and I’ll show you a short-timer.”

Young said there’s a misconception among the public that earmarks increase federal spending, when all they do is redirect money already approved in the budget to a specific project.

“People think their taxes go up and that spending gets bloated. It’s not true,” Young said. “If the money wasn’t earmarked for the state, it would be spent somewhere else.”

Young sponsored about $10 million in earmarks in the fiscal year 2008 spending bills, including nearly $4 million in the omnibus bill.

Critics of the process complain that earmarks are ripe for abuse and provide opportunities for less scrupulous members to partake in pay-for-play politics.

Stevens and Young defend the use of earmarks, saying they’re an important way to direct money to community needs that would otherwise be ignored.

They’re not alone. Despite plenty of talk in the Democrat-led Congress about greatly reducing funding for pet projects this year, earmarks remain popular.

The massive $555 billion “omnibus” spending bill approved by Congress last week and the $459 billion defense bill approved earlier collectively contain more than 11,000 earmarks. Democrats were responsible for about 60 percent of all earmarked spending in the bills.

Congress traditionally abides by an unspoken agreement that gives the majority party the lion’s share of the earmarks, while the remaining 40 percent is doled out to the minority.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group, said earmarks are a bipartisan problem, though Democrats were able to push through new rules this year to make the process more transparent.

The new rules require lawmakers to sign their names to their earmarks, but while it’s made pet projects easier to trace, it’s done little to dissuade lawmakers from sponsoring them.

Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates the 1,400-page omnibus bill contains 8,983 pet projects worth $7.4 billion. The separate Defense Department appropriation bill included another 2,162 earmarks worth $7.9 billion overall, a 25 percent reduction from the peak earmark year in 2005, Ellis said.

Stevens secured about $502 million for projects in the state, including $90 million for the Denali Commission, according to the watchdog group.

Among the funding is $340 million for military base construction projects, including nearly $115 million for Fort Wainwright Army Post.

Other projects include $824,000 for alternative salmon projects, $975,000 for berry research, $332,000 to investigate new opportunities for Alaska agricultural products, $133,000 for native plant commercialization, and $1.4 million for methamphetamine enforcement.

The spending bill also directs the National Marine Fisheries Service to provide $62.9 million to wildlife and fishing industry projects, including $3.5 million for the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, $58.5 million for Pacific salmon management and $235,000 for the Southeast Seiners Capacity Reduction Program.

Stevens, 84, has repeatedly warned state officials that earmarking was not a sustainable way of paying for projects.

“I’ve told the state Legislature for three years in a row that we are going to suffer reductions in the amount of federal assistance if the state doesn’t step up to the plate and provide local assistance,” Stevens said.

Gov. Sarah Palin earlier this month announced that her administration would winnow federal earmark requests to a minimum.