Private companies, lobbyists seek to differentiate worthy projects from earmark requests

By Paul Kane and V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010

As lawmakers imposed another restriction Thursday on congressional earmarks, private companies and lobbyists defended their work in securing federal money for what they deemed worthy projects.

The private interests said that much of their work -- what amount to no-bid grants secured through Congress -- was unfairly being lumped in with earmarks that were obtained through well-timed donations to key lawmakers.

"I understand what the debate is about. But I think that, as Congress reviews the policy on appropriations, there's an opportunity to differentiate those like ours, which are looking for a win-win use of taxpayer dollars," said Benson P. Lee, president and chief executive of Technology Management in Cleveland. His company received a $500,000 earmark to commercialize a biofuel system.

But such firms face a different political environment now. A day after House Democrats announced an end to giving earmarks to any private company, House Republicans said Thursday that their entire 178-member conference will not seek any congressional earmarks this year, swearing off even those for nonprofits and municipal authorities in lawmakers' districts.

Calling the earmark process "a symbol of a broken Washington," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) said the Republican move is a key step in demonstrating fiscal restraint, even if it does not lead to a reduction in federal spending.

"Republicans took an important step toward showing the American people we're serious about reform by adopting an immediate, unilateral ban on all earmarks. But the more difficult battle lies ahead, and that's stopping the spending spree in Washington that is saddling our children and grandchildren with trillions of dollars in debt," Boehner said.

Earmarks are inserted into the dozen annual bills that fund the federal government, to the tune of about $16 billion a year -- a small slice of the more than $1 trillion in discretionary spending that Congress approves each year. While curbing earmarks will do little to reduce the massive federal deficit, leaders of both parties have declared that the process has too often rewarded those who hire the best lobbyists and who make well-timed political donations to senior lawmakers.

The Republican push for prohibiting earmarks came after a 90-minute debate behind closed doors, which attendees described as spirited. Previous GOP efforts to reach such an agreement have failed.

The move will reduce the number of earmark requests. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, House Republicans accounted for more than 1,200 of the earmarks, worth $1 billion, that were included in the funding bills for fiscal 2010. House Democrats estimated that their ban on for-profit earmarks would slash 1,000 of them.

The battle now shifts to the Senate, where John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced Thursday that he will sponsor an amendment to enact "a complete ban on earmarks until our budget is balanced."

Top members of the Senate Appropriations Committee have in the past rejected any push to limit their ability to approve earmarks, and Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has not indicated whether he supports taking up the reform cause. If the Senate does not curb its earmark procedures, companies and lobbyists may continue to seek just as many earmarks as in years past, focusing only on the Senate.

The White House has stayed neutral in the effort to ban earmarks, but on Thursday budget director Peter Orszag said the House's action "will help to reduce abuses and bring more transparency to earmarks."

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