Sham Earmark Reform

WASHINGTON — As bipartisan majorities overwhelmed all attempts to eliminate pork barrel earmarks during a recent House session, one effort actually passed — comfortably, though unnoticed by the public. The reason that for the first time House members voted to deprive a colleague of pork for his district is the identity of that colleague: Rep. Patrick McHenry, a second-term Republican from Cherryville in the western Piedmont of North Carolina, who at age 31 is the youngest member of the House.

McHenry’s $129,000 earmark would promote tourism in economically distressed Mitchell County. The new Democratic majority’s leadership, which routinely supports earmarks, cracked the whip against this one in the apparent spirit of political revenge. A conservative firebrand, McHenry had humiliated the Democratic majority by leading GOP parliamentary maneuvers that immobilized the House to force transparency of earmarks previously hidden by both parties.

But the House the last week of June showed that the celebrated transparency is a sham. Each newly transparent earmark brought to a floor vote lost by a huge margin. In traditional congressional log-rolling, one earmarker protects another. There is no political risk because these votes are publicly ignored. Members insisting on their pork reflect bipartisan congressional nonchalance about ballooning federal spending. Demonstrating how cynical are their pretensions toward earmark reform, Democrats also got even with the bumptious McHenry.

Considering the Interior Appropriations bill June 26, the House kept alive 11 egregious earmarks. Rep. John Murtha, king of Democratic earmarkers, kept $1.2 million for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Commission in Hollidaysburg, Pa. (by a 343 to 86 vote), and $150,000 for W.A. Young & Sons Foundry in Greene County, Pa. (328 to 104). The House voted 323 to 104 to retain $140,000 for the Wetzel County, W. Va., courthouse sponsored by Democratic Rep. Allan Mollohan, whose earmarks have provoked an FBI investigation.

Moving on to Financial Services Appropriations June 28, the House voted 335 to 87 to continue Murtha’s raid on the Treasury: $231,000 for the Grace Johnstown (Pa.) Area Regional Industries Incubator. By 325 to 101, the members refused to remove a $231,000 Mollohan earmark for the West Virginia University Research Corp. to renovate a "small business incubator." As usual, dauntless Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona led the way in targeting colleagues’ earmarks. He did not exempt Republican pork fanciers — including 15-term California Rep. Jerry Lewis, ranking minority member of the Appropriations Committee, whose past earmarking raised ethical questions.

Flake opposed Lewis’s $500,000 earmark for the Barracks Row Main Street project in Southeast Washington, D.C. Flake noted on the House floor that millions in federal funds have flowed into that neighborhood since 1999, including a $750,000 earmark last year. "I certainly hope," said Flake, "that we are not approving a redevelopment earmark today to redevelop last year’s redevelopment earmark." Such comments led Republican leaders last year to purge Flake from the House Judiciary Committee. A smiling, sarcastic Lewis asked Flake: "Have you ever attended the Silent March that takes place on Friday evenings at the Marine barracks [on Barracks Row]?" "I have not," Flake replied. "You have not. I would suggest to the gentleman that probably one of the most important things that a Member of Congress should do is to go to the Marine barracks." Lewis’s earmark was retained, 361 to 60.

That day I asked Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Flake’s fellow Republican reformer, whether he was discouraged. "Oh, no," he said. "There are three of us now [including second-term Republican Rep. John Campbell of California], and now we only get beat three-to-one." Little did Hensarling know that the House was about to eliminate one earmark.

Flake’s earmark list included McHenry’s development grant for Mitchell County, which he said "is simply not a good use of federal dollars." Before the vote, Flake privately reassured McHenry that his earmark was certain to be saved by the pork-hungry House. "Don’t be too sure," McHenry replied. Indeed, with Democratic leaders eager to punish McHenry, his earmark was eliminated 249 to 174.

An embarrassed McHenry told me that this might well be his last earmark. That does signal a little progress, unintentionally resulting from hypocritical pretensions of reform by the new Democratic majority.