Republican senators say they'll vote against their own earmarks

By Philip Rucker and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 12:00 AM

The port city of Pascagoula on Mississippi's Gulf Coast wants to build a beach promenade, with new benches, lush landscaping and a lighted pathway for joggers, cyclists and dog walkers.

So the municipality of 24,000 hired a pair of Washington lobbyists. The city shelled out $40,000 a year, according to public records, to retain Jeffrey Brooks and Wayne Weidie. They are former top aides to Gulf Coast congressmen and frequent donors to Mississippi's elected officials.

The lobbyists parlayed their connections and know-how to secure a $900,000 earmark for the beach promenade development in the $1.2 trillion spending bill introduced this week in the Senate. The earmark was one of hundreds sponsored by Mississippi's two Republican senators, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker.

While Cochran is among Capitol Hill's unabashed spending barons, the bill has reignited the debate over earmarks - federal funding for pet projects - in part because of the more delicate situation Wicker faces: After an election in which voters seemed to demand fiscal belt tightening, he and dozens of other senators from both parties are now decrying the very earmarks they sponsored earlier in the year. Wicker, like many other GOP senators with earmarks in the bill, says he will vote against it.

Last month, Wicker, Mississippi's junior senator, joined some of his party's leading fiscal hawks, including Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.), in a revolt against earmarks. Republican senators agreed during a closed-door meeting to ban them, a symbolic and nonbinding effort that they hoped would send a signal that they are serious about curbing federal spending.

Yet Wicker, along with Cochran, had by then already sponsored earmarks in the spending bill that would fund an airport expansion in Tunica ($1.75 million), new riverwalk lights in Columbus ($300,000), improvements to a hiking and biking trail in Hattiesburg ($700,000) and improvements to an assortment of bridges, highways, trails, railways and streets across Mississippi.

Cochran and Wicker each have more earmarks in the bill than almost every other senator. Cochran sponsored 263 earmarks worth $522.2 million, while Wicker has 223 earmarks worth $415.4 million, according to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

In total, the bill contains more than 6,700 earmarks valued at $8.1 billion. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has 141 earmarks worth $325 million, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has 42 earmarks worth $86.1 million, according to the analysis.

The spending bill also contained earmarks totaling $30.2 million sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who swore off earmarks last month.

DeMint is so opposed that he may force Senate clerks to read the entire 1,924-page bill, a process that could eat up two legislative days, to delay its consideration.

Wicker's aides said he will not request any earmarks next year. The senator said Wednesday that he will vote against the bill as a first step to "change the way business is done in Washington."

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), who sponsored an estimated $15.7 million and $38.5 million worth of earmarks in the bill, came under sharp questioning Wednesday when they staged a news conference to condemn the practice.

"Earmarks are a symptom of wasteful Washington spending that the American people have said they want reformed," Cornyn told reporters. "We agree with them, and that's why we will vote against this bill."

Also fueling the public outcry against earmarks is the growing role that lobbyists play in helping municipalities such as Pascagoula secure them. Critics describe a sort of pay-to-play system, in which small towns feel pressured into hiring lobbyists to help them pay for major projects in exchange for campaign donations.

"It's 40 grand of Pascagoula's tax dollars going to some suits in Washington," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "But it makes the whole system go. The idea is you have to have a lobbyist if you want to get an earmark, and that's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

It is not clear, however, that Pascagoula officials felt pressured, and Cochran, a former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the system ensures that small communities have access to needed federal money.

"When there are individual initiatives that require the attention of Congress, we ought to be open to considering them," Cochran said in an interview Wednesday.

For Pascagoula, which calls itself Mississippi's Flagship City, the road to attaining its latest earmark started in February. With the help of its lobbyists, the city made the case for the promenade, a development that received an initial $500,000 earmark in last year's spending bill.

Beach Boulevard, a state road also used as an evacuation route, has a shoulder too narrow to walk on safely, said Jaci Turner, a program manager for the city. The new promenade would be "essentially a concrete sidewalk right at the connection between the road and the beach," she said.

Pascagoula has been rebuilding its waterfront area since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina damaged it. Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) lost his beachfront home there during the storm.

"There was no beach," Lott said.

A city as small as Pascagoula cannot afford to pay for big infrastructure projects on its own, Turner said. "It's outside the reach of our typical taxation base . . . so with those bigger projects, you ask for assistance," she said.

But for good-government advocates, any system that awards federal money based on political persuasion is flawed. "If the country wants to fund promenades, then Pascagoula should compete," Ellis said. "Maybe Pascagoula would get more than $1 million. Or maybe they wouldn't get anything."

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