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"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.