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Earmarks Banned? House Members Find a New Way to Court their Districts

It was Christmas in June on the House floor last week as members of both parties decorated the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill with gifts and trinkets of all shapes and sizes.

The country faces serious economic problems at home and grim, if not dangerous, events abroad, yet some House members spent last Thursday and Friday adding amendments that have little or no prospect of becoming law — but did provide an opportunity to get some publicity back home.

Take the amendment offered by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), which was titled “Preservation of Second Amendment Rights of Active Duty Military Personnel Stationed or Residing in the District of Columbia.” His office’s news release referred to the legislation as “Gingrey’s military right-to-carry amendment.”

The amendment said that men and women in all services who are stationed or living in the Washington metropolitan area “should be exempt from the District of Columbia’s restrictions on the possession of firearms.” Gingrey’s provision said that service personnel not serving in a law enforcement role “are subject to the District of Columbia’s onerous and highly restrictive laws on the possession of firearms.”

What purpose this amendment serves is questionable, other than illustrating Gingrey’s loyalty to gun owners back home and the National Rifle Association lobby that operates here. Gingrey’s amendment, written as a “sense of Congress” provision, would “have no formal effect on public policy” and is “not considered law,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

It passed, along with 15 amendments that were approved together by voice vote with no debate, as did the others mentioned below. This “en bloc” technique has become the new way to pass the now supposedly prohibited amendments known as earmarks.

For example, there was the amendment introduced by Rep. Stevan Pearce (R-N.M.), which provided for the expansion of the type of disposable nuclear waste handled by the Government Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) located in Carlsbad, N.M., in his district. The amendment follows a bill that Pearce introduced May 9 that would allow the plant to accept non-defense, government-owned transuranic waste beyond that specified in existing legislation.

When Pearce introduced the legislation last month, he said, “We must act now to protect the jobs at WIPP, which also support other jobs in the local community. . . . This proposal will help ensure that these important jobs remain in New Mexico.” It passed as part of another en-bloc group without debate.

Another way to package the old earmark came in the language inserted by Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) and co-sponsored by Rep. Michael H. Michaud (D-Maine).

Current law requires the Defense Department to provide service personnel with American-made uniforms and equipment to the greatest extent possible. Until now, however, new recruits have been given cash allowances to buy athletic shoes from any manufacturer, foreign or domestic.

The Tsongas amendment would require the Defense Department to furnish athletic footwear to newly enlisted service members instead of providing the cash allowance.

Upon approval of the Tsongas amendment last week, her office issued a news release that said the “Massachusetts manufacturer New Balance now produces a 100 percent . . . [American-made] shoe that cost less than the current Army allowance.”

Tsongas said, “It is time for the Department of Defense to treat athletic footwear like every other uniform item. . . . DoD has spent approximately $180 million on the athletic footwear cash allowance program, . . . money that could have gone to American jobs and manufacturing.”

Two other amendments illustrate how the defense bill is used to solve political problems.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) got an amendment voted en bloc into the bill that would affect a decades-long legal dispute in California about a cross at Mount Soledad in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego that has become a central feature of what is now a Korean War memorial. A 2011 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the cross violated the First Amendment ban on government favoring one religion over another.

Hunter’s amendment would permit such “emblems of belief” on any military memorial “acquired by the United States Government.”

Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and George Miller (D-Calif.) are using the defense bill to create a Pentagon example for American purchasers of Bangladeshi apparel following the collapse of a factory there in April that killed more than 1,100 people. Their language would require officials running the Defense Department’s post exchange system of stores to give preference to the purchase of garments from Bangladeshi manufacturers or retailers who have signed an accord on fire and building safety. If they purchase from a vendor who has not signed, they are to “notify Congress of the purchase and the reasons therefor.”

I cannot end without dealing with military bands. The Defense Department has limited band performances to their home venues, doing away with performances for outside community events where the military units traditionally paid transportation and other fees.

Enter Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), who got involved when constituents complained that Marine Corps band units could not play at events in their congressional districts, even when sponsors agreed to pay the costs. Under current law, any payment from sponsors would go to the U.S. Treasury as a gift, not to the band to reimburse its expenses. The congressmen added an amendment to the authorization bill that allowed the community sponsor to pay all expenses, with the money going “for the benefit of a military musical unit.”

When their provision was approved in another en-bloc voice vote, Meehan said, “I’m pleased this amendment has passed, and as the saying goes, ‘The show must go on.’ ”

There is another show going on in Congress, and that one has been playing too long and these days is not entertaining at all.

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