Congress chafes at earmark cuffs

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2013 - 6:41 AM

The latest example came when U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a fiscal hawk, was forced to go to the State Capitol to lobby for about $400 million worth of highway improvements.


Rep. Michele Bachmann, R- Minn., speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Saturday, March 16, 2013.

Photo: Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press - Ap

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In the two years since Congress banned pork-barrel spending projects known as “earmarks,” Minnesota lawmakers have discovered two things about the new fiscal climate. They can’t always get what they want; and even when they try sometimes, they don’t get what they need.

The latest example came when U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party fiscal hawk, was forced to go to the State Capitol recently to lobby for about $400 million worth of improvements to traffic-clogged Interstate 94 and Hwy. 10, in the heart of her district.

The early verdict from the state Department of Transportation: No way; not now.

Before the January 2011 ban, which the GOP-led House renewed in November, Bachmann could have single-handedly funded at least part of the project directly by slipping an earmark into a road spending bill — a prerogative Congress had granted its members for decades.

“It would have been easy,” said Norman Ornstein, a longtime observer of Congress and politics for the American Enterprise Institute. Bachmann’s humbling experience in St. Paul, he said, “is illustrative of a post-earmark world.”

A different world

But earmarks are a thing of the past, a relic of the days before massive trillion-dollar budget deficits and the politics of fiscal discipline.

From road improvements on I-94 to water systems in southwestern Minnesota, congressional lawmakers are finding it harder to fund local projects. They’re also discovering that in some cases, the roadblocks and delays are costing taxpayers more money, not less.

As it is, Bachmann also has been trying to press House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., to set aside federal money for the highway improvements, which would add lanes on I-94 between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, one of the fastest-growing regional corridors between Chicago and Denver.

But even with the backing of business leaders and bipartisan support from Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, Bachmann’s options are limited. Bachmann declined an interview for this story, but through a spokesman said she is “working within the current House rules to highlight the transportation needs in her district.”

Given Washington’s budget constraints, prevailing on Shuster to set aside — some would say earmark — money for Bachmann’s district is a long shot, said Minnesota Democrat Tim Walz, who sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It’s not going to happen,” Walz said.

‘Tied their hands’

Walz has had his own problems with the earmark ban, which has sapped federal funding for a massive water project in southwestern Minnesota called the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System, one of Minnesota’s largest infrastructure projects in years. Even though Congress approved it more than a decade ago, the project has relied mostly on annual earmarks for the bulk of its roughly $550 million cost.

Until 2009, that was not a problem. The project diverting Missouri River water benefited communities in Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa and is supported strongly by lawmakers in all three states, including Iowa Rep. Steve King, a Tea Party ally of Bachmann.

King helped direct $10 million to the project in 2010, the last year before the earmark ban went into effect.

Over the previous two years, Congress had allocated more than $25 million a year to the project. Since the earmark ban took effect, funding through the Bureau of Reclamation and Rural Water Supply, the federal agency that oversees funding for the project, has slowed to a trickle.

In 2011, the federal government chipped in $2 million, followed by $5.5 million in 2012. This year’s funding will be determined through a bureaucratic budget process, not by congressional appropriators.

Unintended consequences

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