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Minnesota transportation projects may fall victim to House GOP’s earmark moratorium

WASHINGTON — The House Republicans’ one-year moratorium on earmarks this year may affect funding decisions that stretch far beyond their pledge’s expiration date, scratching out many transportation projects that two Minnesota Republicans might have received over the next five years.

Some GOP members have grumbled privately about the moratorium decision, not just because they’ll lose out but because it puts them in a difficult spot politically in terms of getting funding for their districts. Some, too, have said privately that they had not anticipated that the current moratorium would affect long-range funding decisions beyond this year’s spending, such as the long-term surface transportation bill.

Here’s how the sitution developed.

Almost every year the House considers such multi-year authorizations as the Farm Bill, federal nutrition assistance (food stamps and school lunches) or, in this case, the surface transportation bill.

The $500 billion surface transportation bill incorporates projects from roads to bridges to mass transit — and falls under the jurisdiction of Democrat Jim Oberstar’s Transportation Committee.

The measure is currently being hindered by concerns about how to pay for about $200 billion of it. Insiders said if there’s action, it’s likeliest to come during the lame duck session after the election.

A preview of things to come
Later this month, that committee will take up a smaller water resources bill, covering ports, locks and other water-based infrastructure that originally had earmark requests from 120 Republicans.

Rep. Jim Oberstar
Rep. Jim Oberstar

Oberstar sent a letter to 116 of them (from whom he said he hadn’t yet heard) demanding to know whether or not they wanted to keep their funding requests. A similar letter is planned for the surface transportation bill.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Oberstar said in a blistering statement accompanying the letter (PDF). “You’re either for funding important projects in your district or you’re not,” adding that “it’s interesting to note that the moratorium the Republican leadership adopted only lasts until after this fall’s election.”

House Transportation Committee spokeswoman Mary Kerr said the committee will not be releasing the list of members receiving the letter or the precise projects they requested. A call-’round to Minnesota’s Republican lawmakers showed no requests in the water bill.

However, two of them — Reps. Michele Bachmann and Erik Paulsen — did submit requests for the surface transportation bill, both of which have now been withdrawn.

Rep. Michele Bachmann
Rep. Michele Bachmann

Bachmann’s withdrawal (PDF) came Monday, while Paulsen’s (PDF) came more than a month ago on April 5.

A Kline spokesman said he had nothing to pull back.

“For the fourth consecutive year Mr. Kline did not request earmarks,” Kline spokesman Troy Young said.

The political pratfall of a principled position
The earmark moratorium was much lauded by Republicans when it passed — exactly one day after Democrats passed their own moratorium on earmarks for for-profit companies.

“Federal spending is out of control and the American people know it,” House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence said at the time. “Earmarks have become emblematic of everything that is wrong with spending here in Washington D.C.”

Pence said the decision came after a “marathon” discussion in the House Republican caucus, reached via voice vote.

Rep. Erik Paulsen
Rep. Erik Paulsen

Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who studies Congress and the earmarking process, said she doesn’t blame rank-and-file House Republicans for being frustrated with leadership.

As a result, she said, Republicans including Paulsen and Bachmann, will have to explain why it was OK to ask for these earmarks in the first place, but now they’re taking a principled stand against them.

“The benefit for Republicans as a party is probably smaller than the losses for individual Republicans who can’t bring back roads and bridges for their districts,” Pearson said.

“It does not make sense to my students,” Pearson said, “and I’ve explained it at length, so I can’t see how it makes sense to voters.”

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 05/20/2010 - 10:36 am.

    It’s really not difficult to explain or to understand, once you acknowledge that it’s simply politics as usual. I’d be interested to know how much arm twisting goes on at the Department of Transportation in lieu of earmarks, by all parties.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 05/20/2010 - 10:59 am.

    US highways are the responsibility of the federal government; they are not dependent on earmarks.

    Roads and bridges that are not a part of the national highway grid are the responsibility of the states, cities and counties in which they reside.

    As with the public school system, perhaps this period of “dry well” spending could initiate some much needed reforms in other areas of government responsibility. How about a MinnPost in-depth investigation into public works departments?

    It may well be that every penny we are investing in our transportation grid is being spent wisely, but history (the St. Paul pot hole debacle comes to mind)leads one to bet against it.

    In any case, legislators that are restraining their natural tendency to spend, spend, spend should be encouraged, political motivations withsatnding; it’s still money we don’t have to borrow.

  3. Submitted by Paul Andersen on 05/20/2010 - 11:46 am.

    Why is U of M professor Kathryn Pearson being used as a source when she is a demonstrably biased source????

    Her $250 financial contribution to Tarryl Clark should be disclosed when citing her as a source……….poor investigation by Derek Wallbank:(

    Proof of donation available at links below:

    Wallbank is either ignorant or biased…..because no one thinks for a second that he would use anyone as an “objective source” if they had donated to say a GOP’ers campaign………..

  4. Submitted by John Olson on 05/20/2010 - 11:58 am.

    My question is whether or not the overall amount of a bill like the surface transportation bill decreases when a member (or two members) say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

    Or does the amount of the bill remain the same and the funds are redirected to other districts/states? I think I know the answer….

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/20/2010 - 12:07 pm.

    Kathryn Pearson needs to ask the Democrats why we are spending all this money for “earmarks” when we have no money.

    Of course, part of her salary is subsidized by the people of MN. Does that make her a State government “earmark” or just a member of a special interest group?

  6. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 05/20/2010 - 12:57 pm.

    The level of comment on this issue is really of low quality. Who said Pearson is an unbiased source? No one made such a claim. She is referenced because she is an expert on the subject and studies it as her career. She is also entitled to have opinions and act on them by donating.

    The earmark issue is just a red herring. It is a sensible way to make sure that federal money does not just get spent via formulae and bureaucratic planning but rather so local people can have a say and get some resources for particular projects. It is a small party of the federal budget. It does need transparency so we don’t get bridges to nowhere and “museum of spruce trees” etc. Hold congress accountable for making good decisions but keep the earmark process. It is one of the few ways people can see a direct benefit to their tax dollars.

    Finally I really like the idea of Republicans opposing earmarks and not asking for them. Good for them. Their constituents vote for less taxes so they should be the first to lose out on tax supported resources.

  7. Submitted by Derek Wallbank on 05/20/2010 - 03:24 pm.

    Hey Paul,

    Thanks for flagging this.

    I talked with both Kathryn Pearson and the Clark campaign about this, and they both tell me the wrong Pearson was listed as a donor.

    Clark’s campaign filed an amended campaign finance report with the FEC today, noting the correct Katherine Pearson of Minnetonka (occupation now listed as a self-employed writer) as the donor in question. Here’s the corrected filing:

    Kathryn Pearson (the University of Minnesota professor, who doesn’t live in Minnetonka) hasn’t given any money to Clark, according to both her and the Clark campaign.

    All the best,

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/20/2010 - 04:03 pm.

    Thank for digging a little deeper to correct the mistaken investigative “citizen journalism”
    that a few folks try and attempt to be. ;’)

  9. Submitted by dan buechler on 05/20/2010 - 04:44 pm.

    Paul and Ron, your arguements do not sway me, it is open to debate. Discrediting through flaws is not wholly defensible. Remembering impeaching Clinton for a sexual affair and a subsequent lie? That sure did a hell of a lot of good for the country. It may or may not have gotten Bush elected easier but people remember Florida’s mess and more knowledgable people point to Gore’s gun control stance in 1 southern state.

  10. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 05/20/2010 - 07:31 pm.

    Wow, Minnpost seems to have attracked more then its share of wingnuts. So folks, maybe you all ride bicycles and don’t drive our roads, but for those of us who do, they are not in that great a shape. We had 13 people DIE when a bridge collapes three years ago. A bridge in our state COLLAPSED! That kind of thing is not supposed to happen here, we are better than that. Or we were. The problem is very simple. Selfishness. No one likes paying taxes, but if you want bridges that don’t fall down, if you want roads without potholes, if you want good schools you have to pay for them. It is that simple. Spare me your whining about “government” wasting your money, or the private sector could do it better, blah blah blah, those are just excuses that you use to make yourself feel better about your selfishness. Its an old story, that’s been told time and time again. Its really sickening and it ruining what once was a great state.

  11. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 05/20/2010 - 07:41 pm.

    “…have said privately that they had not anticipated that the current moratorium would affect long-range funding decisions beyond this year’s spending,”

    In a nutshell they couldn’t see beyond their partisan blinders. One must wonder if they aren’t able to anticipate the near term effects of thier paritsan games how can we expect them to make coherent decisions regarding our long term future? The decisions of these few people are going to have a very negative impact on our state for generations. Pawlenty had probably done more damage than any one person in this states history, but what are Paul and Ron worried about? Someone made a $250 donation. Oh my God!

  12. Submitted by Roger Wichmann on 05/20/2010 - 09:31 pm.

    Just a comment based on the previous comment about the root cause of these problems in selfishness, and apparently there is no such thing as government waste.

    Selfishness did have a lot to do with the I-35 collapse, the selfishness of the voters. Too many voters are in line wanting there pet project or issue funded by the government, and politicians are all too willing to fund the new “flashy” program they can tout in campaign ads and on the campaign trail. Providing sufficient funding to boring things like highway repair and bridge inspections do not lead to re-election seems to be the order of the day.

    If the government (on all levels) and voters expected the government to only fund the small list of essentials, and no more, taxes would be low, the essentials in good shape, and the economy of the State in great shape. But when we ask the government to fund everything, and politicians want to please the voters (or at least interest groups), we end up with everything funded at levels too low to do any of the programs well. So either the government does things poorly, or they borrow and spend to do somewhat better, but leave a financial wreak for our children and grandchildren.

    As far as waste, from the 2006 Citizens Against Government Waste report of Minnesota:

    1. $20.6M for a bear exhibit at the MN Zoo

    2. $2M for the city or Orono to buy a campground

    3. $1.7M in Film Production incentives

    4. $1.8M Giants Ridge Golf & Ski Resort

    5. $1.6M Ironworld Discovery Center

    6. $36M to bail out the Minneapolis Teachers Retirement Fund

    7. $776M Twins Stadium

    8. $7.5M Ordway Theatre

    9. $15.4 Million for the Perpich Center for Arts Education

    10.$9M Polar Bear Exhibit MN Zoo

    And the list goes on and on. Most of these projects benefit a small group, not the state as a whole. But because we the voters and the politicians cannot set priorities, we have to spend millions on everything.

    The point on the Federal earmarks is that even thought they are a small part of the budget, if we cannot cut the little things, how will we ever cut the big things.

  13. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/20/2010 - 09:45 pm.

    Mr. Tobias,

    I said nothing about a donation.

    However, for your information, WE HAVE NO MONEY!

    Prof. Pearson can debate all she wants in her class about the inconsistency of some Republicans and “earmarks.” However, the ethics of spending money when we have no money is a greater issue.

    The subsidized students listening to the subsidized professor would be an interesting discussion when it comes to spending money we do not have.

    A least some Republicans are hesitant about spending our children’s and grandchildren’s money.

  14. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/20/2010 - 10:04 pm.

    People find earmarks difficult to justify not because of the end results of these investments, but because of the process and accountability of those devising the earmarks is less clear than most would desire.

    What I never understand is when someone like Swift presents an argument for the devolution of power in federal spending, how no one seems to counter the claim saying that all government spending should be done at the federal level. It’s not a question of whether the spending should be taking place, but who’s responsibility it is. Just because the federal government has a bigger budget doesn’t mean that it ought to be footing the bill for every organization’s concerns.

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