WASHINGTON — House Republicans agreed on Thursday not to request any special projects for their districts, the second move this week aimed at reforming the controversial earmark system in Congress.
Four of the five House members from Oklahoma are Republicans, and they typically receive tens of millions of dollars each in earmarks every year for schools, roads, hospitals and other entities in their districts.
Rep. Dan Boren, the lone Democrat in the state’s delegation, can still get so-called pork barrel projects, though House Democrats this week agreed not to make any requests for private, for-profit companies; the for-profit companies receiving earmarks are typically defense contractors.
Most of Boren’s previous earmarks have gone to road and water projects and academic research in his largely rural district in eastern Oklahoma, and he defended the practice on Thursday.
Boren, D-Muskogee, said lawmakers are better equipped to make spending decisions in their districts than "some bureaucrat in President Barack Obama’s administration. It is my responsibility and duty to advocate for the people of eastern Oklahoma.”
The moratorium on earmarks doesn’t apply to the Senate, but only one of Oklahoma’s senators requests projects.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, regularly fights against earmarks, and he praised the move by House Republicans.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R- Tulsa, requests numerous earmarks each year and echoed Boren’s comments on Thursday, saying all of the money that would have been used by House Republicans would now be used by the Obama administration.
Earmarks have been increasingly controversial, partly because they sometimes go to projects that are easy to ridicule but also because of corruption scandals. The House ethics committee recently exonerated several lawmakers who got earmarks for a defense contractor that provided them significant campaign contributions.
Two years ago, the one-time top aide to former Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Istook pleaded guilty to accepting meals, concert tickets and other things in exchange for securing road projects for a lobbyist.
"In the eyes of the American people, earmarks have become the symbol of just how broken Washington is,” said Rep. John Sullivan, R-Tulsa. "The lack of transparency and oversight in the earmark process has led to waste, fraud and abuse that the American people simply will not tolerate any more.”
The House GOP ban on earmarks is only for this year and will cover the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 and runs through September 2011. The ban was approved just as members were turning in their earmark requests for the next fiscal year.
Earmarks typically are specified local projects in the annual spending bills approved by Congress for government departments and agencies. The spending bill for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for instance, includes numerous agriculture research projects at universities across the country; lawmakers determine what research projects are designated.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said the Republican action "represents a serious effort to reform a spending process that historically has been opaque and tinged with corruption.
"However, no one should be under the illusion that this step will solve the deficit crisis. The real cause of the current deficit is unrestrained, programmatic spending and the failure to address entitlement reform.”
According to the group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which compiles a database of earmarks, there were about 9,500 congressional earmarks worth nearly $16 billion approved for this fiscal year.
That is a small part of overall spending, but Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, said it was "a first step in the right direction for curing Washington of its ‘spend now, pay later’ mentality. I hope House Democrats will follow our Republican lead and require the same of their (members).”
Rep. Mary Fallin, R- Oklahoma City, said, "Federal spending is out of control, and the American people know it. It is time to end the ‘business as usual’ attitude and affirm our commitment to fiscal discipline. This moratorium is a good first step towards earning back the trust of the American people and protecting their hard-earned tax dollars.”
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