Correction: This column incorrectly states that Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) issued a news release May 20 in which he claimed credit for securing $3 million in additional budgetary authority in the fiscal 2012 Defense Authorization Bill that would benefit Technology Ventures Corp., a New Mexico nonprofit involved in the satellite industry. In fact, that release was issued in 2010 and referred to an amendment in the 2011 defense bill. Heinrich did have an amendment in the 2012 bill that added $3 million for space research, but he did not issue a news release about it.

When is an earmark not an earmark? It’s when House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) says so.

During last week’s debate on the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill, McKeon said flatly, and more than once: “There are no earmarks in this bill.”

But what about the dozens of en bloc amendments approved during the committee markup May 11 that reserved funds contained in a $1 billion, committee-created Mission Force Enhancement Transfer Fund (MFET)?

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a strong earmark opponent, said during debate on the House floor that it was his understanding “that during the full committee markup more than $650 million of that money was moved out of this [MFET] fund by members of the committee seeking to increase funding for their own priorities in the bill. . . . Members with a pot of money from which they can transfer money to fund their own projects, this would be similar to the earmarking culture.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), another active earmark opponent, was more direct. In a letter last week to McKeon and Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the committee’s ranking Democrat, McCaskill described the panel’s MFET as “a slush fund created by making cuts, virtually all unexplained and unjustified, to programs requested by the Department of Defense” and instead to be used for “pet projects pursued in earmark amendments.”

McKeon defended the fund, saying it was established so that “members of the committee that have the expertise move the funding around to more important items. . . .We do not feel bound by the president’s request that we will just be a rubber-stamp committee to just do what he expects us to do.”

What the committee did, according to McCaskill, was to collect members requests for increases in defense spending, vet them and decide which would be packaged together and introduced at the full committee markup. Then, as each subcommittee section was taken up, these agreed-upon amendments were passed en bloc with “no discussion, debate or justification,” McCaskill said.

She also wrote McKeon that it had been reported that “members of your committee have been assured that they will be able to direct the funds provided for in their amendments to their desired recipients using informal contacts” at the Pentagon or leverage of the committee.

On the House floor, McKeon noted that money from the MFET fund would be awarded only “on merit-based selection procedures in accordance with the requirements of [applicable sections of the U.S. Code] or competitive procedures [that] comply with other applicable provisions of law.” Each amendment also requires it be done “in furthering national security objectives.”

“If we find any member pressuring the Department of Defense to use any funds other than to comply with competitive, merit-based solutions,” McKeon added, “we will go after them.”

Flake’s answer to that, during their debate, was that members “take a victory lap” when they get earmarks in a bill by issuing press releases. He said a member, whom he didn’t name, had already put out such a release, saying he had gotten funding for Technology Ventures Corp., a nonprofit charitable foundation “in New Mexico’s emerging satellite industry.”

On May 20, Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) issued a news release saying he had “secured several key provisions in the bill,” among them: “Funding for a nonprofit, charitable foundation, Technology Ventures Corporation (TVC), to help expand innovation in New Mexico’s emerging satellite industry.”

Like all the others in the MFET fund, his amendment was approved en bloc. As printed, it identified $3 million in additional budgetary authority, which could be found in section 4201 of the defense bill. In turn, that amount could be added to the $115.3 million requested by the president for space technology. There was no mention of TVC in the bill, only that those funds were to be awarded, as McKeon said, based on merit-based selection.

It was to be expected that McCaskill, a Democrat, would use a Republican as her example of a member taking a victory lap. She, like Flake, did not name the congressman. She wrote McKeon only that a member “with a nanotechnology-specific academic center in his district offered an amendment seeking [a] $7 million addition for ‘innovative nanomaterials and nanomanufacturing processes.”

On Thursday, the day the defense bill passed, Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) put out a press release listing his “additions” to the measure. First on the list was a requirement for a Pentagon study “to assess the desirability of establishing a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) for nanotechnology. This would allow the SUNY Albany College of Nanoscale Science to compete for this designation, and associated federal support, if it is determined necessary.”

He added that he also got a provision in the bill to “provide $7 million [fully offset] in funding for nanotechnology research in the defense field. SUNY Albany would be able to compete for this funding as well.”

McCaskill pointed out that Gibson had “publicly embraced an earmark ban” for the current Congress.

Freshman Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) also had an amendment in the MFET funding process. His was for an $8 million add-on to aviation advance technology specifically for a high-efficiency, air-breathing turbine propulsion system for unmanned air vehicles. In a May 17 press release, he claimed that as one of three amendments he got into the bill, saying the money came from “wasteful Department of Defense offsets.”

Three Flake amendments will affect the program if it survives the remaining legislative process. McKeon accepted them, and like others they were voted on as part of an en bloc package. One eliminates the remaining $348 million in the MFET, another requires the Pentagon to justify any use of earmarked MFET funds, including detailing how they were awarded, and the final one directs the Defense Department to make public any written communications from Congress that recommends any MFET funds “be directed towards a particular project.”

Are earmarks dead? The stake has yet to be driven into the practice.