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GOP flip-flops on earmarks. Wonder what tea partiers think about this.

Leon Troutsky

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Tea Party Republicans start backpeddling on campaign promises. Wonder if the tea partiers will protest this or just blindly follow their leaders.

GOP gets queasy over earmark ban

By: Jake Sherman

December 9, 2010 04:34 AM EST

After agreeing to kill earmarks, some of the most conservative GOP lawmakers are already starting to ask themselves: What have we done?

Indeed, many Republicans are now worried that the bridges in their districts won’t be fixed, the tariff relief to the local chemical company isn’t coming and the water systems might not be built without a little direction from Congress.

So some Republicans are discussing exemptions to the earmark ban, allowing transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water projects. While transportation earmarks are probably the most notorious — think “Bridge to Nowhere” — there is talk about tweaking the very definition of “earmark.”

“It’s like what beauty is,” said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.). “Everyone knows what a bridge to nowhere is, or an airport that lands no airplanes, or a statue to you — everyone knows that’s bad. It’s easy to say what an earmark isn’t, rather than what an earmark is.”

The issue has popped up most frequently at the Conservative Opportunity Society, the caucus founded by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in the early 1980s. During their Wednesday morning meeting last week, caucus members had a long discussion about how the Republican Party could redefine “member-directed spending,” as earmarks are formally called on the Hill.

Conservatives like Roe, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Iowa Rep. Steve King are among those trying to figure out a longer-term, sustainable way to get money back to projects in their districts.

“This isn’t trying to be too cute by half of what is an earmark and what isn’t,” Bachmann told POLITICO on Wednesday. “But we have to address the issue of how are we going to fund transportation projects across the country?”

These questions come as Republicans enter their second consecutive Congress with an across-the-board ban on all member-directed spending. Everywhere from K Street to Capitol Hill, insiders are asking how projects across the country will get money. Many think the spigot is closed, and they are none too pleased.

Conservatives also are frightened that they’ve ceded too much control to the executive branch, leaving local highway and water project decisions to bureaucrats. Bachmann, a favorite among tea partiers, said that Article I of the Constitution gives Congress “the authority to make discriminatory decisions, which means proactive decisions about which roads are built.”

Insiders are predicting a slew of work-arounds to shake loose some cash.

That includes phone calls (creatively called “phone marking”) and letters (“letter marking”) to executive agencies to request funding. Lawmakers are also talking about creating a more detailed grant process in authorizing committees to make sure money gets to the right place. Or they could work their way in the back door by quietly asking the Senate — where Democrats don’t have an expansive ban on earmarks — to add money for certain projects.

“Now, you’re going to have members calling the administration; then you have to ask yourself, why are you here,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho).

Bachmann says Congress should exempt “roads, bridges and interchanges” and recommends that if a town, city, county or state approves a project, a lawmaker in Washington should be able to submit a request — a practice she says she has followed. Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) says Congress should earn back the public’s trust before considering a new definition but concedes the earmark ban will bring about “unintended consequences.”

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a tea party favorite who lost out on his bid to chair the House Appropriations Committee, thinks his party may have overreached.

“Let’s look at transportation,” he said Wednesday. “How do you handle that without earmarks, since that’s a heavily earmarked bill? How do you handle a Corps of Engineers project? I think, right now, we go through a period where we have gone one step further than we meant to go, and there are some unintended consequences.”

The official definition of an earmark, under Republican Conference rules, is any request for “authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority or any other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific state, locality or congressional district other than through a statutory or administrative-formula-driven or competitive award process.”

Also included in the earmark ban are specific tax benefits or limited tariff benefits. Roe, who represents northeastern Tennessee, is concerned because, this year, he won’t be able to help Eastman Chemical — based in his district — get a tariff waiver for a chemical found only overseas. “I asked for easing, and that’s an earmark,” he said.

Essentially, the earmark ban could lead to the unintended consequences of corporations paying higher taxes that could be exempted by Congress.

Most Republicans on Capitol Hill, including appropriators, agree that earmarking was out of control. Even last year, lawmakers requested 32,294 earmarks worth $131 billion, according to a Taxpayers for Common Sense analysis of spending bills.

Earmarks are what got the late John Murtha (D-Pa.) into trouble and led to a slew of federal investigations of lawmakers and lobbyists. And many newly elected Republicans come to Congress with a sour attitude toward any type of earmarking.

Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) thinks some GOP freshmen don’t even know what they got themselves into by banning member-directed measures. In a recent closed-door meeting of the Republican Conference, LaTourette asked members to raise their hands if they knew what a limited tax or tariff bill does. He later explained that it could level the trade playing field with a country such as China.

Among some members — including Kingston and Simpson, both appropriators — there’s a feeling of giving Congress some tough love until it realizes what it’s thrown away.

“We have to go through this process of not using earmarks for a couple of years,” Simpson said. “There’s going to be things that are legitimate that they want to do in their districts that are appropriate, that are the reason we are here — one of the reasons we are here — [that] they’re not going to be able to do.”

Bachmann, for one, has major concerns about cutting off the flow of money to the Stillwater Bridge, which connects Minnesota to Wisconsin over the St. Croix River.

“The earmark issue touches transportation front and center, because how else do we fund these,” Bachmann said, “without ceding all the authority to the executive branch?”

But does Bachmann believe private entities shouldn’t get earmarks?

“I’m not going to comment on that,” she said. “What I’m commenting on is that we need to have a real, practical working definition of what do we mean by” earmarks.

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