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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.