Jan 17 2007

Efforts to curb earmarks don't bother Shelby

Birmingham News

By Mary Orndorff

Alabama's top advocate for earmarking federal money to pay for local projects is showing no fear that new congressional efforts to clamp down on the practice will hurt his ability to steer funds back home.

"It doesn't bother me at all," U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby said. The Alabama Republican is a senior member of the spending committee and has built a legacy of carving out hundreds of millions of dollars from federal budgets to be spent back home.

The U.S. Senate voted Tuesday night for tighter rules on how those earmarks - the nickname for money set aside for parochial needs - are obtained by individual lawmakers. The changes are part of a larger bill on ethics and lobbying reform that will come to a final vote later in the week. Shelby has voted with fiscal conservatives on amendments to subject even more earmarks to more scrutiny earlier in the legislative process.

For years, many of them were dropped secretly into near-final legislation without debate or complete identification about who benefits. Such earmarks have exploded into a billion-dollar enterprise, and one former member is behind bars for trading earmarks for bribes.

"I think the worst thing that ever happened up here was people abusing the appropriation process to build a bridge to nowhere and frivolous projects and everything," Shelby said in an interview last week in his Capitol Hill office. A proposed $223 million project in Alaska in 2005 was ridiculed because of the tiny population of the island it would connect, earning the "bridge to nowhere" moniker.

The rule changes, similar to what has been approved in the House, would not prohibit earmarks. Reformers, instead, hope that earlier and more complete public disclosure would discourage legislators from making funding requests that may not be considered in the best interest of taxpayers.

"I'm not suggesting we limit earmarks, just make them transparent and obvious," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Shelby has always blanketed reporters with press releases about the Alabama earmarks stuffed into legislation after it is approved. One of the reforms would require disclosure at least 48 hours before a vote. That change also would apply to tax or tariff provisions that benefit only a single company.

Depending on the wording of the final bill, it is likely that most of what Shelby and the Alabama delegation have secured in recent years would have been subjected to the tighter rules, if they had been in effect. Hundreds of earmarks for Alabama, worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year, blanket cities and towns and colleges across the state with money for sidewalks, courthouse renovations, research facilities, defense-related technology, local school programs, arts councils, museums, sewers and highways.

Shelby and other Alabama lawmakers defend each as having merit and say they can withstanding closer scrutiny. Shelby predicts that the state's share of federal money for projects would not be diminished under the new rules.

Alabama regularly ranks high among the states in the amount of "pork" per capita. The nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste added up $203 million in Alabama earmarks in 2006.

The Tuesday Senate votes represented an agreement hammered out between Democrats and Republicans after some GOP conservatives last week complained that the Democrats' bill too narrowly defined earmarks and would have exempted most of them from the new rules. With the change, even earmarks that are buried within a federal agency's budget would have to be disclosed, not just those that go directly to a local entity.

Shelby and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., voted for the amendments.

Earlier Tuesday, the Senate also agreed to an amendment requiring earmarks in classified budgets for defense or intelligence to be accompanied by unclassified explanations of the project.

"The only thing I'm interested in as far as earmarks ... has to do with universities, science, math, engineering, infrastructure and national security," Shelby said. "We're always going to have earmarks up here."