Oh, how a federal budget deficit of $1.3 trillion can spoil one's taste for pork.
Last year, in just one example among hundreds of Rep. Denny Rehberg bringing federal money home to Montana, he announced he had landed $500,000 in funding for Missoula's Watson Children's Shelter.
"The Watson Children Shelter fills a critical need in western Montana," Rehberg said at the time, "and I'm pleased I was able to secure this crucial funding to help make a real difference in the lives of Montana children."
But you don't hear Rehberg—whose $103.5 million in appropriation requests in fiscal year 2010 ranks eighth in the 435-member House of Representatives, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—boast of his pork procurements any more. The soon-to-be six-term congressman who sits on the House Appropriations Committee now says the country simply can't afford to continue the practice of earmarks.
"Earmarks represent the culture of spending that has led to record deficits and debts that are literally costing us our future," said Rehberg in a recent release. "The inclusion of pet projects creates incentives to vote for and pass bloated spending bills that don't otherwise pass the smell test."
Rehberg's reversal comes as House Republicans, fresh off a midterm election that saw them take control of the chamber, renew their voluntary ban on pet projects. And he hasn't been shy about espousing his new point of view. He regularly uses Twitter to urge his fellow Montana delegates, Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, to "buck up" and join him in banning earmarks. He called them out in a recent letter as among "the final holdouts of an antiquated spending culture where elected officials fight to spend more and more tax dollars."
But in a large and rural state like Montana, with its history of delegates famous—or notorious, depending on the point of view—for bringing home the bacon, that spending culture has been vital to thousands of public and private projects throughout the state.
Take the Watson Children's Shelter, which, thanks to Montana's congressional delegation, received $500,000 in funding last year from the U.S. Department of Justice and $625,000 through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money was used to construct a second facility that doubled the shelter's capacity to provide a safe environment for children who are victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment.
"They were critically important," Director Fran Albrecht says of the earmarks, "particularly during a time when we started a capital campaign when the economy was more stable, and then we entered a very difficult time as our needs were increasing, the needs for our services were increasing, and yet the availability of private dollars and foundation dollars began to decrease."
Albrecht walks a careful line when discussing the issue, and it reflects the dichotomy of the debate over earmarks playing out in Washington, D.C.
"I think earmarks need to be considered very carefully, and in our case we were deeply grateful for that federal funding, and it was put to use immediately and effectively," she says. "But I do think it's important to be sure that there isn't any wasteful spending. And I do think when we can bring federal dollars to our state that it helps our state, especially when it can be done in an effective manner."
Which is to say that earmarks are okay, except when they're wasteful—a mostly subjective determination. That considerable gray area is a big part of why Congress, and Rehberg specifically, will have such a difficult time reining in earmarks.
According to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, earmarks typically account for no more than 1 percent of the budget. But that 1 percent still amounts to a ton of money—about $16.5 billion in 2010. Rehberg extrapolates and argues the country could save $165 billion over the next 10 years if Congress bans earmarks.
"Only in Washington, D.C., is $165 billion in spending not a big deal," Rehberg says to those who dismiss the potential savings. "That's the problem with Congress. We need to change the culture of spending in Congress, and this is the first step."
But there's a problem with Rehberg's argument. Reducing earmarks doesn't necessarily reduce spending. As The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget explains, funds spared from earmarking wouldn't remain in the federal treasury because they're part of a pot of money slated to be spent, and would certainly be spent elsewhere if delegates didn't direct them to their districts.
"Nobody knows the needs of their district or their state as well as members of Congress, and they certainly know it far better than the bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.," says Pat Williams, a Democrat who served Montana for 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. "If you don't do earmarks for special needs, then what you're doing is turning that spending, in effect, over to the bureaucracy."
Williams' point, in essence, has been the argument Baucus and Tester have been making over the past few weeks in a bitter back-and-forth with Rehberg.
In a letter to Rehberg dated Nov. 23, Baucus defended earmarks as being responsible for generating much-needed jobs, infrastructure and resources in Montana.
"Our ability to bring money home for these projects is particularly important to a rural state like Montana, and giving up our ability to do so with the earmark moratorium will hand over even more power to President Obama and larger states like California and New York," Baucus wrote. "Relying on formulas and cost benefit analyses will favor a city subway system over the Ekalaka-Alzada Highway every time. But as representatives of Montana, we know the true value of projects like this to the people of our state. It's our job to fight for them."
Added Tester, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in his defense of earmarks: "For federal resources, a project like the new Shiloh Road in Billings would have a tough time competing with the potholes that need to be filled on the New Jersey Turnpike."
Republican Bob Brown, a former state legislator, secretary of state and candidate for governor, takes a different view. He says if the system allows appropriations outside of a formal legislative process, then the system isn't doing its job.
"We see and read in the news where members of Congress say, 'Well, this is the grease that's necessary to go between the gears. We do favors for each other in this way and that's how other major pieces of legislation get passed,'" Brown says. "Well, why was this grease between the gears not necessary for most of American history? Why did it suddenly become necessary in more recent years?"
Tester, as Rehberg's office is quick to point out, expressed his disdain for earmarks during his race against Sen. Conrad Burns in 2006. But flip-flopping obviously isn't limited to Montana's junior senator. Beyond ranking among the top earmarkers in Congress, Rehberg told the Great Falls Tribune last year: "Earmarks are not the problem. They direct money that already exists within the program to a particular area, because who knows their district more than we do?"
Robert Saldin, a University of Montana political science professor, supposes Rehberg's sudden 180 comes as a function of the Tea Party's emerging influence over the GOP.
"[Rehberg's position] is really symbolically important," Saldin says, "because it highlights what some of these Tea Party types see as wasteful, arbitrary spending."
As an example, Saldin points to the UM grizzly bear DNA study. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., continually harped on the project—along with Alaska's infamous "Bridge to Nowhere"—when he ran for president.
"For people like us who live in Montana, we may say, 'Oh, that actually sounds like a pretty good idea, a pretty important thing to be studying.'" Saldin says. "But for people who don't live in Montana, of course, that sounds a bit questionable."
As the grizzly bear study suggests, UM, like most public universities, is certainly no stranger to pork. Last year it received $2 million for its Defense Critical Language and Culture Program, and $400,000 for the Montana Safe Schools Center. Baucus and Tester's requests for $2.4 million for a mobile biomass energy unit and $2 million for a nanomaterials testing center failed.
"We don't like to use the word 'earmark,'" says Daniel Dwyer, UM's vice president of research and development. "We call them 'federal initiatives.' But these are things that, if they are funded—and very few are actually funded, especially in this type of economic climate—we do ask our delegation to try to help us out with them."
Dwyer stresses that of the $67 million in grants and contracts UM landed last year, only about 2 percent was in the form of earmarks. He says earmarks serve a specific purpose—helping to develop the infrastructure and acquire the equipment that then makes the school competitive for other grants. Or, earmarks can fill holes when grant money runs out. Take the request for funding for the mobile biomass unit. He says it was originally funded through a short-term U.S. Department of Agriculture grant several years ago. When the money dried up, the school looked to its senators for help.
That process of asking Montana's delegation for appropriations has become institutionalized. Each year, Dwyer says, UM identifies projects it would like to pursue but doesn't see a path to obtain competitive funds for them. After an "internal process" of reviewing potential projects, the school takes them to the Board of Regents to determine what the school will ask of its delegation.
"The concept that people have is that if our delegation does not do earmarking then there will be less spending," Dwyer says. "That doesn't necessarily translate. What it really means is that less money will come to Montana and go to some other state. So we're just trying to get our fair share—every university in the country is doing this. So in some sense, it's a matter of self preservation."
Dwyer's correct—every school is doing it. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, universities received an estimated $1.5 billion in earmarks in 2010. Mississippi State and University of Mississippi landed the most money, with $28.5 million and $30.7 million, respectively. Not coincidentally, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran is the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In addition to education, transportation projects routinely draw gobs of earmarked money. For example, in fiscal year 2010, Montana's delegation teamed up to bring $3 million to the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) for Helena's Custer Avenue I-15 interchange, and $1.5 million for Belgrade's I-90 interchange.
These earmarks come on top of MDT's roughly $300 million budget, 87 percent of which comes from federal coffers. But MDT Director Jim Lynch doesn't make a distinction between earmarks and other federal dollars.
"From a Department of Transportation standpoint, we look at it all as federal funding available to modify, expand and preserve the highway system," Lynch says. "But how it comes to us is all decided upon in Washington, D.C, and what mechanisms they use to get it to the state."
Lynch does acknowledge, though, that the fewer earmarks the state receives, the greater financial burden it bears.
"If we didn't have the federal dollars that we get through the highway bill and through different appropriations and different funding sources, and we needed to deliver those programs, we'd have to deliver them with state funds," he says.
Montana double-dips in federal money for more than just highway projects. As Baucus pointed out last month in his letter to Rehberg, federal funds amounted to 43.5 percent of Montana's general fund in 2010, or more than $2.2 billion. In 2009, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, Montana ranked fourth in the nation in federal funding as a percentage of its total budget. Taxpayers for Common Sense ranks Montana sixth in 2010 in federal dollars received per capita—$124.77.
"We've received a wonderful amount of assistance from Washington over the years," Bob Brown says, "and if we have to receive a little less in order to become a part of [earmark] reform then I think we should do it."
Bringing money home for local projects tends to be a boon for politicians.
"There are great benefits in Congress to securing pork," Saldin says. "It's a good way to get reelected, basically, and as much as there is a principled argument to be made against earmarks, the fact of the matter is, it's increasingly seen as an important part of a representative or senator's job...It's a good way to curry favor at home. People have made their careers with this."
Former Sen. Conrad Burns certainly made his career on pork. Over the course of his 18 years representing Montana, Burns brought home some $2 billion in earmarks. Democrats like Williams say only Rehberg rivals Burns' pork proficiency.
Still, Republicans, with Rehberg in tow, are promising financial restraint in the face of a massive deficit. In March, House Republicans announced they wouldn't seek any earmarks for the rest of the year. They reaffirmed that position last month, voting to ban them next year, too. Senate Republicans vowed the same, but the chamber, controlled by Democrats, rejected a two-year ban.
Already, though, Republicans are beginning to get "queasy" over their earmark ban, according to a Dec. 9 Politico story. Many 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." Some Republicans are discussing earmark ban exemptions, like allowing transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water projects—or even tweaking the very definition of "earmark."
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Georgia, a Tea Party favorite, thinks his party may have overreached.
"Let's look at transportation," Politico quoted him as saying. "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 Republicans' success last week in killing the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill may suggest they're willing to deal with those consequences. Taxpayers for Common Sense found the bill contained roughly 6,600 congressionally directed earmarks worth $8 billion—many requested by Republicans. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, for example, requested 42 earmarks worth $86 million, including $4 million for the Kentucky National Guard Marijuana Eradication Program. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., requested more than $38 million in earmarks.
Republicans rejected the omnibus bill in favor of a one-page continuing resolution that funds the government through March 4. Rehberg says the move signaled his party's willingness to sacrifice pet projects.
"There are more projects and ideas that I support than we can afford," he tweeted.
Indeed, the abandonment of the bill and the earmarks contained in it has big implications for Montana, and specifically the Missoula area. Beyond Tester's deficit-neutral Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, killing the bill nixed $40 million earmarked for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Fund, some of which would have paid for restoration efforts in the Blackfoot, Clearwater and Swan River valleys. UM missed out on another $3.3 million for its Defense Critical Language and Culture Program, according to Dwyer, plus other smaller appropriations. Also wiped out was $771,000 tagged for an "Emergency Operations Center" in Missoula County.
"Here in these final days of the 111th Congress we've held the line on taxes," McConnell said on the Senate floor last Friday. "We've held the line on spending. Next, we turn to cutting spending and cutting debt. The American people are seeing change here in Washington. They can expect more in the New Year."
Many Democrats cringe at Republicans taking credit for reining in earmarks. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, sponsored the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, which provides for mandatory disclosure of earmarks in spending bills. Rehberg, Baucus and Tester all voted for it. House Democrats have since enacted additional reforms to further boost transparency.
Furthermore, data suggest that the current Democrat-controlled Congress has shown relative restraint in requesting pet projects. The number of earmark requests for fiscal year 2011—basically the 6,631 in the omnibus bill that outraged Republicans—is actually a 53 percent reduction compared to 2005, and 35 percent reduction compared to last year, according to Citizens Against Government Waste. The $8.6 billion earmarked is a 70 percent reduction compared to 2006, and a 48 percent reduction compared to the amount of money requested last year.
The reforms, Williams says, justify his support of earmarks.
"I want to see the [earmark] process continue," he says. "But it has to be as it has been in the last Congress—transparent. We have to know who the sponsors of them are. With those two things in place I personally think earmarks should continue, and the public should let it be known that they think the process ought to be curtailed, but not killed."
But Brown says addressing symptoms won't fix the underlying problem
"I recognize that we've benefited in Montana from having people who were near the pork barrel and they were able to get important benefits for Montana as a result of that," he says. "But the fact that we may be a good example of a bad example doesn't justify what I think is an essentially corrupt system."
All three of Montana's delegates want to go further than what's currently on the books. Tester is co-sponsoring the Earmark Transparency Act, which would create a single, searchable online database of earmark requests, but it hasn't yet come up for a vote. Baucus supports it. Rehberg, meanwhile, stresses his commitment to changing spending laws to require the administration to give funding priority to authorized projects that were vetted and passed individually by Congress. "In those cases, which represent how the process should work, an earmark isn't necessary," he says.
In the meantime, with Republicans taking control of the House next year, earmarks, for better or worse, will likely be curtailed—unless, of course, the GOP's queasiness over the matter spreads to its pork-loving constituents.
PORK BY THE NUMBERS
Data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics and Taxpayers for Common Sense, as well as information provided by Montana's delegates, allows for a closer look at specific funding requests from fiscal year 2008 through 2010. The examples below focus specifically on self-sponsored earmarks secured by Rehberg, Baucus and Tester.
Rep. Denny Rehberg
Earmark requests: 172
Amount requested: $199,815,830
Rank for 2010: Eighth out of 435 representatives
Recipient: Montana World Trade Center, University of Montana
Why: Tabbed by TIME magazine as the eighth "most outrageous" earmark of 2008, Rehberg's appropriation boosts the Montana World Trade Center's efforts to increase international trade through public-private partnerships, business networking and student education.
In his own words: "The Montana World Trade Center has been a valuable resource for local businesses trying to sell their goods internationally. These funds will help ensure the Trade Center can continue to hold trade missions as well as allow them to create new programs to expand their ability to assist Montana businesses."
Recipient: Northern Rockies Educational Service, Missoula
Why: Aimed at improving technology integration in K-12 classrooms in Montana.
In his own words: "Better technology in our schools means a better education for our kids. I'm working to ensure Montana's students have the same access to modern technology as kids who live in urban states like California."
Recipient: Yellowstone County
Why: Assists Yellowstone County in acquiring 27 mobile video digital cameras to augment current systems and replace VHS formatted video systems.
In his own words: "Whether it's the cop on the beat or the ability to gather necessary forensic evidence in cases of sexual assault, these federal dollars will help keep criminals off of the streets and out of our neighborhoods."
Sen. Max Baucus
Earmark requests: 266
Rank for 2010: 40th out of 100 senators
Recipient: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Why: Assists the state's effort to establish a "Two Rivers State Park" at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers.
In his own words: "As Montanans, we know places like Two Rivers State Park are important to keeping our communities healthy and vibrant—because our outdoor heritage is part of who we are. This project is important for Missoula because it will turn the Milltown Site—which has seen decades of wear and tear—into a community asset."
Recipient: The Libby School District
Why: Contributes to a new elementary school after asbestos was found in the walls of Asa Wood Elementary.
In his own words: "This is about making sure our kids are safe in their schools, and about making sure the folks in Libby get the medical care they need and deserve."
Recipient: LigoCyte, Bozeman
Why: Help develop a vaccine against the stomach flu virus for the military.
In his own words: "In addition to an investment in LigoCyte, this is an investment in our state's economy and a validation of the high quality of work being performed here."
Sen. Jon Tester
Earmark requests: 242
Rank for 2010: 38th out of 100 senators
Recipient: Sanders County Coalition for Families, Thompson Falls
Why: Provides assistance to victims of domestic and sexual violence, stalking, teen dating violence, child abuse and other problems by establishing a new Women's Resource Center in Thompson Falls.
In his own words: "This is [part of] a multi-million dollar investment in the folks who protect and serve us day in and day out, which is why I'll support these projects every step of the way."
Recipient: Montana National Guard, Helena
Why: Ensures continued activities of the Montana National Guard in the state's counter-drug task force. Current activities include both youth education and providing aerial and intelligence support to state and local law enforcement agencies.
In his own words: "Putting resources into reducing the flow of drugs into Montana is a good investment of federal resources. The Counter-Drug Joint Task Force is a good example of folks working together to keep illegal drugs off our streets and away from our kids and neighbors."
Recipient: Bridger Photonics, Bozeman
Why: Helps to develop a prototype device that will provide helicopter pilots with accurate real-time displays of landing zones obscured by sand storms or fog.
In his own words: "This was a cutting-edge investment in our troops and our national defense that is creating Montana jobs now, and it will pay off in the years ahead by making our military stronger and more effective."