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April 22, 2010 at 4:05 PM

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Banning earmarks: Democrats scorn Republican gesture

Posted by Kyung M.Song

WASHINGTON -- House Republican leaders on Thursday challenged their Democratic colleagues to join them in swearing off all earmarks for one year, drawing scorn from Democrats who say that theirs was the party that truly tackled earmark reforms.

The House Republican Conference adopted the one-year moratorium in March, right after House Democratic leaders banned earmarks for private companies. That prohibition in turn followed ethics reforms passed by the Democrat-controlled Congress in 2007 to curb earmarked, no-bid federal contracts doled out at the behest of individual lawmakers, sometimes to campaign contributors.

On Thursday, House Republican leaders, including Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, called on Democrats to forgo earmarks even to non-profit groups for a year and to use the money instead to pay down the federal debt.

Members of Washington's Democratic delegation dismissed the resolution as an empty political ploy.

Robert Kellar, press secretary for Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, noted that it was the Democrats who pushed through earmark reforms that have cut their numbers by half since 2007 and to require lawmakers to divulge their earmarks online.

"What did Republicans do when (they were) in the majority on earmarks? Nothing, zip, zero,'" Kellar said. "If the Republicans had any credibility on this at all it might be worth discussing."

George Behan, chief of staff for Rep. Norm Dicks of Bremerton, argued that killing all earmarks won't necessarily reduce government spending. That's because earmarks are paid with money already appropriated in the bills; eliminating them simply frees up the dollars for the Pentagon or other agencies to spend as they see fit.

"The Republican leadership understands this. The attempt to gain political advantage here is disingenuous," Behan said.

Republicans, however, say they simply won't appropriate the money taken up by earmarks. Instead, they plan to apply the savings to the federal debt, now nearly $13 trillion.

Republicans estimate that a total ban on earmarks would yield $10 billion to $30 billion a year, said Todd Weiner, press secretary for McMorris Rodgers, who is chairwoman of the Select Committee on Earmark Reform, a committee created last year by House Republicans.

Ethics watchdogs say that earmark reforms remain rife with loopholes. Among them is the very definition of an earmark, which allows some lawmakers to escape disclosure rules if they sponsor an earmark with other members or give a contract to a favored recipient after a bidding competition.

The Senate so far has been cool to putting any restraints on earmarks.

Republicans "are the people who took us to two wars they never paid for, and gave tax breaks they never paid for," Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, said. "They're not making any sense."

Inslee for his part has cut his earmark requests by half, and said meaningful debt reduction should come through the bipartisan debt-reduction commission. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, has foregone earmarks this year.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, co-sponsored a bill with Reichert to make earmark appropriations more transparent. But Smith said an outright ban would give spending discretion entirely to federal agencies "and not members of Congress who know the needs of their districts."

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.