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McCaskill study alleges 115 'earmarks' in House defense bill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 12, 2011 -WASHINGTON - Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., issued a staff report on Monday contending that 115 spending proposals in the House-passed defense bill, worth $834 million, were "earmarks" that appear to violate a congressional moratorium on such favored projects.

But a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee told the Beacon on Monday that those provisions would not be part of the compromise House-Senate defense bill because House appropriators had not provided funding for the section of the legislation that included them. The spokesman denied that the provisions were earmarks. 

The pet projects include 20 provisions added by freshman GOP members, many of whom had campaigned on promises to end earmarks. Among those listed in the report is a provision, sponsored by freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., for $2.5 million for "development of innovative manufacturing techniques" at a lab at the Rock Island Arsenal in Rock Island.

Another amendment listed as resembling an earmark called for $20 million for the Air Force to outfit advanced bombers to carry numerous munitions, according to McClatchy Newspapers. The committee amendment was sponsored by freshman Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, whose Missouri district includes Whiteman Air Force Base, where the B-2 bomber is based.

Spokespersons for Schilling and Hartzler -- both of whom won election with tea party support -- denied this weekend that the provisions were earmarks, saying that competition would be involved. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., denied earlier this year that the new fund set up for such amendments -- called the "Mission Force Enhancement Transfer Fund (MFET)" -- funded any earmarks.

Update starts: A list of the House amendments analyzed by McCaskill's staff includes two items that it identifies as "earmarks" sponsored by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, who chairs the House Armed Services seapower subcommittee. The first is a $30 million provision for nanotechnology research for "small business and non-traditional research" in weapons and munitions technology, some of which appeared likely to go for research developed by the Nanotechnology Enterprise Consortium -- a group of 18 businesses, mostly in Missouri, trying to establish the state as a nanotechnology center. A second, $4 million provision was for enhanced night-vision technology, similar to earmarks in two previous years that helped fund contracts for Clean Earth Technologies, a firm based in Earth City.

In a statement Monday, Akin refuted the senator's description of his amendments as earmarks. "Every single amendment complied with conference rules on earmarks, was publicly available and transparently voted on," said Akin. His staff made available copies of the amendments, each of which includes a final section which says that any Pentagon decision to spend the amendment's funding must be "based on a merit-based selection process." End of update.

The 15-page report by McCaskill's staff, leaked to some news outlets and delivered Friday to the leaders of the House and Senate defense panels, examined 225 committee-adopted amendments. Of those, the report asserted that 75 were "earmark" requests from House Democrats and 40 from House Republicans, intended to encourage funding for projects in a congressional district. Another 31 amendments seemed to be earmarks, but they could not be linked to specific House members.

McCaskill, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has vowed to try to strip any such earmarks that remain in the final defense bill. Earlier this year, she had complained to McKeon about the MFET, which she has described as a "slush fund" designed to disguise what are in reality earmarks.

"If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. And these were earmarks -- no question about it," she said at a Nov. 30 news conference to announce a bill she is sponsoring with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would impose a permanent ban on earmarks. Both the House and Senate had adopted temporary moratoriums on earmarks for this session of Congress.

Report Follows Up Watchdog Group's Previous Analysis

The McCaskill staff report examined many of the same House defense provisions pointed out last summer by the Citizens Against Government Waste watchdog group, which supports the Toomey-McCaskill earmark bill. That analysis found that 59 of about 111 amendments that were scrutinized had language nearly identical to that used to describe previous earmarks.

Update starts: On Monday, McCaskill sent copies of the report and an accompanying list of suspect amendments to all members of the House and Senate armed services panels. In a news release, McCaskill accused leaders of the House panel of flaunting the earmark moratorium by means of the MFET fund. "Americans want to believe in their leaders, but when their leaders put in place an earmark ban and then immediately create a system to get around it so they can have their political pet spending projects, there can be no confidence," she said in a statement. End of update.

A copy of the report, obtained by the Beacon, said that 76 percent of the amendments reviewed were determined to be earmarks. "The funding requested in these 115 amendments could be linked to an entity within or near the offering member's district," the report said. In 85 of those, the funding was also linked to previously disclosed earmark requests in past years.

In an effort to explain why the number of Democratic "earmarks" greatly outnumbered those linked to Republicans, the McCaskill report said that the disparity was related to efforts by GOP members to "remove records of their past earmark requests from public access, significantly reducing the ability to link new earmark requests to past practice."

Update starts: Akin said McCaskill "should see to her own glass house before she chucks anymore rocks across the Hill" to criticize the House Armed Services Committee, which he said "instituted a legislative process that is unprecedented in its transparency.  Unlike McCaskill's own [Senate] committee, our legislation was posted two days before the committee considered it. Unlike her committee, our markup was open to the press and the public." Akin concluded: "Sen. McCaskill's focus on government waste is admirable and we look forward to her putting it to work in her own chamber."

A McCaskill spokesman said in an email that the criticism misses the point, because "the Senate bill didn't have any earmarks in it, unlike the House bill."

A spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, Claude Chafin, said McCaskill's report not timely because the amendments in question -- lumped into Title XVI of the bill -- were stripped from the House version when it went into a joint conference with the Senate this month to work out a compromise. He told the Beacon that McCaskill's report was "pretty thin," and said the  amendments she cited "don't rise to the definition of an earmark." End of update.

The McCaskill report listed the Rock Island provision -- which would benefit the Quad City Manufacturing Laboratory at the Rock Island Arsenal -- as one of five "case studies" to explain why such amendments are considered to be earmarks. The study said Schilling's request matched the language (but not the amount) of previous earmarks sponsored by his predecessor, former Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., and of parallel Senate earmarks backed by Iowa's senators and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

But the Washington Post quoted a Schilling spokeswoman as saying that the request was not an earmark because the Army would award the funds by means of a competitive process. The Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce had asked for federal funding for the laboratory, but the lab would have to compete for the funds.

The Hartzler provision that might benefit Whiteman air base was not made a case study in the report, but it was listed in the accompanying spreadsheet. A spokesman for Hartzler told McClatchy that the provision is "not something that was earmarked in any way, shape or form. The Air Force will decide, not Vicky Hartzler, whether that money goes to Whiteman or anywhere else."

Watchdog Says Other Bills Also Include Earmarks

While the House defense authorization bill appeared to contain more earmark-like provisions that any other legislation in Congress this year, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) contends that several other major bills include earmarks.

The watchdog group has identified 251 projects worth about $9.6 billion "that represent either an entirely new spending item or a substantial increase over the President's request," the CAGW reported.

Of the 16 appropriations bills being developed in Congress, the CAGW found 12 that contain earmarks. The "porkiest" was the Pentagon appropriations bill, which had 72 projects worth $3.9 billion in the House and 49 projects worth $2.9 billion in the Senate that the CAGW contends "would qualify as earmarks" under definition in the Toomey/McCaskill bill.

"We were hopeful to have put earmarks to bed when the moratorium was adopted," CAGW President Tom Schatz said in a statement. "However, any serious analysis of the FY 2012 appropriations bills reveals that the death knell of pork-barrel spending was sounded prematurely."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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