Earmarks might be on the outs in Washington, but the first bill on the Senate floor since Democrats reluctantly embraced an earmark ban is still chock-full of expensive aviation pet projects that lawmakers are eager to defend for their voters back home.
Tucked inside a current draft of a bill to fund Federal Aviation Administration programs are legislative line items that would direct money to state-specific projects and programs, including $12 million to subsidize flights to 44 rural communities in Alaska, a land transfer for a new airport in Nevada and new airspace testing sites likely in Oregon.
While the line items don’t fit the strict definition of appropriations earmarks, the FAA bill shows how the deft use of legislative language by senators can accomplish the same thing — making sure their home states are taken care of with special projects. Critics call these backdoor earmarks, while defenders say they’re not violating the rules of the ban and are doing an important part of a senator’s job.
Last week, the Senate barred earmarks from spending bills that wind through the Appropriations Committee, but the scramble to keep sending money home raises the question of what is — and isn’t — an earmark.
“The earmark ban is only, as I understand, for the appropriations bills,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) told POLITICO. “There are probably, I haven’t looked, there are half a dozen earmarks in this [FAA] bill that we’re on now.”
Longtime earmark critic Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) filed an amendment to the aviation bill that would cut a $200 million fund that covers the $12 million subsidy for 44 Alaska airports.
“The amendment would save $200 million or more by ending subsidies to airlines that serve small airports when there isn’t the market need or volume of consumers,” said McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan.
In a letter to McCain, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) urged him to withdraw his proposal, saying the funds are necessary for poor communities that are reachable only by airplane.
“Debating project-specific funding is healthy and necessary,” said Julie Hasquet, a spokeswoman for Begich. “But a program like [Essential Air Service] — which is part of a lifeline in many parts of Alaska — needs to be preserved.”
There’s even a nice benefit in the aviation bill for Nevada, Majority Leader Harry Reid’s home state. The bill includes a federal land transfer around the construction site of a second airport near Las Vegas.
“The FAA legislation allows Ivanpah Airport to plan for the future by utilizing some of its surrounding land to construct flood-control facilities to prepare for a 100-year flood,” Reid spokesman Zac Petkanas said, defending the tailored project.
Reid initially sparred with President Barack Obama over his calls for an earmark ban during the State of the Union, telling the president to “back off.” Last week, Reid agreed to abide by the ban on earmarks in spending bills.