WASHINGTON - It's the political equivalent of a hunger strike.
As Congress lurches toward a budget showdown before Christmas, Minnesota Rep. John Kline is at the center of an ideological food fight over the role of pork-barrel "earmarks." The Lakeville Republican calls the system of special funding for pet projects a "corrupting" influence in Congress, and says he won't take any.
That has left officials in his rapidly growing suburban district wanting federal dollars to complete projects from the Cedar Avenue Transitway to the expansion of Hwy. 212 in Carver County.
While some appreciate the principle of his stand, others note that he only became pure on pork after the Democrats took charge.
Moreover, they say, Kline worked the trough when the GOP was writing the bills.
Kline acknowledges that his views have changed, but not because of partisan politics.
"I came in, somewhat naively I admit, thinking I was going to compete for my district, like everyone else does," he said. "I've got some very worthwhile projects. Then the realization kept coming back year after year that this is preposterous."
So this year, at the beginning of his third term, Kline put local officials on notice that he would not sponsor special spending requests for his district, leaving it to state and federal bureaucrats, or to other members of Congress.
Kline is one of only a dozen out of 435 House members to do so. The reviews have been mixed so far.
"It's shocking and disturbing," said Dakota County Commissioner Will Branning, who heads a partnership working on the Cedar Avenue transit project, which was looking for about $6 million from Congress this year. "For one congressman to do it, it puts us in a box."
'Bridge to Nowhere'
Others on the Dakota County Board, including former Eagan Mayor Tom Egan, complain that the planned Mall of America bus corridor "is not a 'Bridge to Nowhere' " -- a reference the now infamous Alaska project regarded as the turning point in last year's backlash against earmarks.
But others have lined up behind Kline's stand.
"I'd rather have a principled person representing me than somebody who's able to go through the back doors in an underhanded way," said Ted Seifert, a county commissioner in Goodhue County, which has dibs on federal dollars to improve interchanges on Hwy. 52 south of Cannon Falls.
Another supporter is Carver County Commissioner Tim Lynch, who was told this year that Kline would not sponsor his request for federal money to upgrade a Depression-era bridge that carries County Road 20 over the Crow River in Watertown. "I understand," Lynch said. "The easy thing to do would be to take the earmarks."
Until last year, Kline seemed happy to bring home the bacon. In recent years, he obtained -- and took public credit for -- millions of dollars in major projects in his district. Among the highlights: $2.4 million in safety upgrades for Hwy. 13 in Burnsville and Savage; $3.25 million for improvements at the intersection of County Road 42 and Hwy. 52; and at least $10 million for the Cedar Avenue project.
In the past, he has also helped secure money to expand Hwy. 212, one of the state's main east-west arteries.
But this year, when the Southwest Corridor Transportation Coalition approached him for $3 million to complete a widening of the road between Chaska and Norwood Young America, members were told no dice.
"I was a bit surprised," said Chaska City Council Member Bob Lindall, who heads the coalition. "I recognize that it's his prerogative, but it's unfortunate that our project should go unrepresented in Congress."
Instead, the group went to U.S. Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar, who put a $670,000 earmark for Hwy. 212 in a transportation spending bill, the same bill that has $190 million to replace the collapsed I-35W bridge.
Citing the bill's larding with billions in pork-barrel projects around the country, Kline voted against it, siding with the White House, which threatened a veto.
Kline said he supports the 35W bridge money, as well as all of the transportation projects in his district. But he said he feels duty-bound to take a stand against a system that rewards seniority and personality at the expense of merit.
"If I'm in there fighting for my projects on the merits and I get $7 million, and somebody who's been here longer gets $200 million, that's not a program I want to participate in. It's a program I want to change," he said.
Kline's effort is widely seen as symbolic, since the money he gives up isn't being saved.
"If the money doesn't go to Minnesota for Minnesota projects, it will go to other states for their projects," said Margaret Donahoe of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance.
And if Kline appears to be making a statement, he hasn't sought much publicity. Instead, his decision was quietly posted on his congressional website in July, long after the spring "earmark season" in Congress.
Starting in January, he announced, "I decided not to submit any appropriations requests for projects until integrity is restored to the earmarking process. That integrity has not been restored."
Democrats beg to differ. When they took over in Congress in January, they announced reforms requiring members to attach their names to their earmarks, and to certify they would not result in personal financial gain.
Since then, some of those rules on openness have been watered down, to the consternation of Republicans and a number of Washington reform groups.
Kline and his GOP allies maintain that the reform process began on their watch. But that's hard to tell, since most of last year's big spending bills were not finished before the Democrats came to power.
Democrats point out that under Republican control, congressional earmarks grew from 1,439 in 1995 to 13,997 in 2005.
They also chide that if Kline is serious, there is still time to rescind the unspent portions of some $12.8 million he secured for his district under a transportation funding bill Congress passed in 2005.
Kline predicts that more members will join him next year. But political analysts note that not all members of Congress are as comfortably situated as Kline, a conservative in a conservative district.
"If he didn't feel electorally secure, I think he'd be trying to pull in as many benefits as he can," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, in the center of Kline's district.
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753