Thursday, February 16, 2006

The push to end earmarks, which critics call pork-barrel spending, is bogged down in the House, thanks to a strong defense of the practice from top Republicans.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, California Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, used for missile attacks on terrorist lairs, is a shining example of the best of earmarks.

He said the Predator proved its success in Bosnia after he stuck an earmark into a spending bill in the mid-1990s, long before the war on terror.

“We pushed funding by way of an earmark that moved [research and development] way ahead — two, three years ahead,” Mr. Lewis said. “There’s little doubt Predator would never have been in Bosnia if we hadn’t done that.”

Other leaders defend the practice by saying it’s how they are judged at home.

“The Buffalo News, which is my hometown newspaper, still believes I ought to bring home the bacon,” said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Earmark opponents have noticed the return fire.

“The empire is striking back,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican and sponsor of a bill to rein in earmarks. He said Mr. Lewis tried to intimidate his bill’s supporters by issuing a list of earmarks that each had requested.

Those who want to reduce or eliminate earmarks say they are bracing for a long fight. They hoped for quick action on reform in January after the guilty pleas of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, and lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

“It mirrors the attention span of the American public,” said David Williams, vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste. “It’s going to take awhile. You still have so many people on both sides of the aisle who fundamentally do not want earmark reform.”

Republicans and Democrats in both chambers defend earmarks as an appropriate exercise of the power of the purse.

Opponents of the practice are having more luck in the Senate than the House. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, have threatened to force votes on every earmark this year. They also are leading a group of senators who have put forward a reform proposal on the issue.

Earmarks range from an estimated $25 billion to $40 billion a year. The highway spending bill last year reserved $14 million for every House member to direct to pet projects.

Mr. Lewis said the Appropriations Committee reduced earmarks in fiscal 2006 bills by $2.8 billion.

He said certain reforms are needed, and has proposed limiting the number of earmarks per person and requiring that each member requesting an earmark defend it in a letter that would go into the Congressional Record.

Mr. Flake wants earmarks to be subject to a vote as part of a bill and to keep them from being added to House-Senate conference reports.

Mr. Williams said his group is seeking the broadest of reforms, but Mr. Lewis’ ideas would be a major step.

“We’re so used to losing battles we want to see small victories,” he said.

He called the Predator a perfect example of pork. In the past decade, he said, Congress has added $285 million for Predator spending over what the Pentagon has requested.

At the time of the earmark, Mr. Lewis said, he was introduced to the world of unmanned aerial vehicles while serving on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. His initial earmark of close to $40 million was enough to advance the Predator program several years and have it operational in time for use in Bosnia.

He said the Predator was competing with more traditional aircraft such as the Joint Strike Fighter and that the military has embraced its value.

“They saw it after some cajoling,” he said, explaining an example of the value in earmarks.

Mr. Flake, though, said that for every Predator are dozens of projects like the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, which became the pork poster project in his challenges to the highway bill.

He challenged Mr. Lewis’ version of how the Predator was funded, saying the Predator was a Defense Department request and that the House and Senate were debating over how much to fund it.

“This is the antithesis of what they are trying to defend. This thing was debated,” he said.

Kimberly Kasitz, a spokeswoman for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., which builds the Predator, said she couldn’t comment on the history of the Predator because the company didn’t want to take a position on the validity of lawmakers’ claims.

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