Fear of Earmarks Sparks Split in Sandy Aid Bill

House Republicans' cost-cutting fervor imperils money for Hurricane Sandy relief.

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., left, confers with Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., center, as the House Rules Committee sorts through dozens of amendments on an aid package to assist victims of Superstorm Sandy at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 14, 2013.

Updated Jan. 15

When House Republicans decided to ban earmarks in 2010, they boasted the move would change the way Washington does business. It has, though perhaps not in the way they intended. The ban has changed the way pork is parceled out, while hampering Congress’s ability to do its business at all.

The earmark moratorium and a restive House Republican caucus bent on slashing spending have rendered the 112th Congress virtually ungovernable for the past two years. The first flashpoint of the 113th Congress suggests the situation hasn’t improved. Despite protests from Democrats and a cadre of Northeastern Republicans, House conservatives are threatening to torpedo a $50 billion aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy because of objections that the legislation is packed with unnecessary spending.

The bill, which is scheduled for a vote on Tuesday, is a case study in how an unassailable cause can be overshadowed by the competing priorities and pet projects of 535 fractious lawmakers. In the two years since the House ban on earmarks was enacted, the cost of spending projects steered to specific districts has plummeted, but lawmakers have mastered tricks to preserve pork barrel spending, including the stealth art of tucking extraneous provisions into emergency legislation. The practice was exemplified by the fiscal cliff deal shoehorned through Congress on New Year’s Day, which preserved a bundle of expiring corporate tax credits and subsidies for Nascar racetracks, rum distillers, algae growers and Hollywood producers.

The $60 billion Sandy aid package that passed the Senate on Dec. 29 faced similar criticism. The bill contained billions unrelated to the damage wrought by the hurricane, according to an analysis by the independent watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, including provisions like $150 million for fisheries as far away as Alaska or $821 million for harbor dredging that could benefit Mississippi River towns like St. Louis. Late on New Year’s Eve, with tempers aflame from the brawl over the fiscal cliff, House Speaker John Boehner declined to bring up the Senate bill for a vote. The House skipped town, and the bill died along with the previous Congress. Boehner’s decision drew a thunderous denunciation from Northeastern governors like New Jersey Republican Chris Christie, who called a press conference to single out Boehner and labeled the House’s inaction “disgusting.”

Christie picked the wrong culprit. Boehner’s distaste for pork dates back to before the belief became fashionable – in 12 terms, he has never sought an earmark – but when it came to the Sandy bill, he was hemmed in by his rank-and-file. Sixty-seven House Republicans opposed a bill, passed in early January, that awarded a first tranche of some $10 billion in Sandy aid. Now they may be poised to derail efforts to parcel out the next $50 billion.

On Tuesday the House is set to vote on legislation authored by Republicans, and designed primarily to aid Northeastern communities still reeling from the ravages of Sandy nearly three months after the storm socked the East Coast. The first package, from Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky, would allocate $17 billion in funding. The second, from New Jersey Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen, would tack on another $33 billion, bringing the total aid package to $60 billion, the amount sought by the White House and passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Rogers and Frelinghuysen say the package has been stripped of the Senate’s pork. But not all the money is emergency relief that exclusively targets the states stricken by Sandy. The legislation would direct $2 billion to federal highway improvements, $25 million toward improving weather-forecasting systems and $118 million for Amtrak upgrades. House conservatives have bristled at the inclusion of non-emergency items, including a $12 billion chunk of the Frelinghuysen amendment that would go to long-term development projects. Forty-seven states and Puerto Rico would be eligible for those grants. “I’m respectful that other states have disasters. Some are still recovering from major hurricanes and storms,” Frelinghuysen tells Time. “But Chairman Rogers insisted that since I needed to piggyback on his bill, I fully supported his cleansing and vetting of the Senate bill.”

Even so, the mere whiff of pork has caused House conservatives to recoil. They argue a debt-racked nation can’t afford to fund long-term recovery efforts or parochial projects under the auspices of an immediate regional emergency. Members submitted a mind-boggling 92 amendments designed to curb the package’s cost or, in a few cases, add a so-called poison pill that could sink it altogether. Some of the amendments bear even less relation to the hurricane than the offending sections of the aid package they oppose. One amendment restricts farm subsidies. Another eliminates all foreign aid, except for that given to Israel and Pakistan. Still another exempts the bill from the Davis-Bacon Act. Then there is a contingent of congressmen who believe Sandy relief is a worthy cause, but want to counter the cost of the package by applying dollar-for-dollar spending cuts – just as the GOP insists on doing with the debt limit. One Republican amendment would pare back all discretionary spending in the federal budget by 1.6% to offset the $17 billion Rogers amendment.

The avalanche of amendments left passage of part of the package in question Monday night. “The Frelinghuysen amendment is going to draw the most scrutiny,” predicts Tom Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. At a Rules Committee hearing on the Republican amendments, Democrats and a number of Northeastern Republicans warned that a procedural morass could bury the bill. “We throw ourselves on your mercy,” said Democratic Congressman Louise Slaughter from New York. “Give us some help.” Nita Lowey, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, warned that the endless stream of Republican tweaks could result in “filibuster by amendment.” Republicans said they empathized, but insisted that the legislation would be inspected to ensure the money was spent wisely. The need for oversight collided with the need for speed. And while speed won out — late Monday night, the Rules Committee, which is controlled by Boehner, blocked the vast majority of the amendments aimed at curbing the size of the package — that could diminish the legislation’s chances of winning conservative votes.

Northeastern Republicans suggested they would be able to gather the 20 or so GOP votes needed to nudge the bill over the line. But for wavering conservatives, the stakes spiked when two powerful conservative outside groups, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America, came out against the aid package. “I think even many people who are very conservative are shocked at how long it has taken for the federal government to respond,” Freylinghuysen says. “We have not done well by the Northeast. I think there’s some degree of sympathy even though there’s disagreement over the dollar amount.”

On Monday, many Republicans stressed those sympathies — but gave no indication they planned to vote for the bill. “We want to help,” said Georgia Republican Rob Woodall, who in the next breath mentioned he had heard disconcerting reports that the legislation benefited the people of Guam and the Mariana Islands. And while earmarks may be gone, for some the impulse to bring home the bacon for one’s district still reigns. At the Rules Committee hearing, members openly lobbied for money to restore damaged beaches in Florida and soil erosion in Colorado, legitimate issues that are nonetheless separate from the storm that walloped the Tri-State area in October. “They do it because they can,” says Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste. “The problem with these bills is that members add additional spending requests because they know the bill is going to be approved.” Sandy victims are hoping he’s right.

This story originally misspelled the surname of Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen.

164 comments
fitty_three
fitty_three

Here's a question for you all:

1.  What separates 200,000 deaths in a equally sized storm in Bangladesh from Sandy, with 56 deaths?

2.  What separates 5500 deaths in a 5.6 earthquake in Homs from a 5.6 earthquake in Encino, CA, with no deaths.

3.  What separates the Mississippi floods in the mid '90s from their counterpart in China where 500,000 doe?

These aren't trick questions, and this ain't rocket surgery.

DearyPie
DearyPie

More Americans are working harder, longer, and for less money than the generation before.  Yet are told time and time again how they are a handout nation.  So very little respect for those truly seeking a way to live honorably.  We, the American people, need to recognize the need to provide people with work that not only support them finically and with long term benefits.  Then we need to get to work addressing our biggest budget spending areas (Medicare, Social Security, and Defense).  We've got to get smarter about how these dollars are spent while providing the support these programs were intended to give.  Reducing favoritism and greediness of lobbyists such as drug companies, defense contractors, etc. is one step in the right direction.

EricSchneider
EricSchneider

Here is what I don't get ...

Why doesn't the media NAME the scumbag politicians who have placed this pork in the bill in the first place. Do you really think that there are enough people benefiting from $150 million for fisheries as far away as Alaska or $821 million for harbor dredging that could benefit Mississippi River towns like St. Louis that the rest of the people in those area's wouldn't vote these guys out in their next election if they knew the waste of money that the are responsable for???

I don't! ... especially if it were presented to those people properly!!!

PhilSmith
PhilSmith

If you are in NJ, Municipal Excess Liability Joint Insurance Fund in NJ should cover infrastructure damage. Homeowners insurance should cover your home. No need for federal tax dollars.

Other states probably also have an insurance fund to rebuild their infrastructure.

SERIOUSLY...
SERIOUSLY...

And the left cries foul....shocker.  Deal with it Libs.  The crazy thing is many in our voting population believe that it's OK for our government to spend frivolously!  How is this OK???

GeriatricAlive
GeriatricAlive

The business of adding pork to bills has to end. This aid is supposed to be there to help the victims of Sandy. And please, lets not do the "they built on a beach" routine. If you could have you would have too. Who ever expected this kind of thing to happen this far north?? Get real people. The point is, just get the aide put together for the victims of Sandy and do the other stuff separately or not at all. NO MORE PORK!! Half our debt is all this stupid pork to buy votes. Stop now! I don't want my reps approving this bill with the pork. Unfortunately my reps are Schumer and Gillibrand which means they will vote in favor. Just leave out the pork.

AfGuy
AfGuy

This make sense to anyone???

Somehow, I thought the left's goal was to make ONLY THEMSELVES wards of the state.... or did Frank Luntz and FauxNoise mangle the talking points again?

Nice to see that the election didn't affect paulie's ability to MAKE ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE...

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@paulejb 

Gee, maybe this has something to do with our exploding retirement block: the baby boomers?

Nah.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@paulejb Perhaps we should get rid of all the old people. Most of which coincidentally vote Republican.

Pollopa
Pollopa

On the getting smarter, it would be nice to see the debate on how we can control medical costs in this country, not how we reduce spending through cuts on our safety nets.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@DearyPie 

Bingo.  Large cuts to defense alone could massively impact the debt and the deficit.  I kind of roll my eyes when people rant about the dangers of pork.  Yes it's a problem, but we have bigger ones to face.

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

THANK YOU, I couldn't agree more.  We have a deficit crisis on our hands but Americans want to help the people of the Northeast, and so you get politicians cynically stuffing the bill with a bunch of unrelated garbage.  Christie should have called them out for trying to capitalize on NY and NJ's suffering instead of blaming the people trying to bring some semblance of spending restraint to the table.  I live nowhere near the Northeast but am happy to see some of my taxes go to real disaster relief.  I do NOT want them splashed haphazardly across the country to every pol with his hands out.  Worse, some of them KNEW putting that junk in the bill would hold it up, and that the Republicans would be blamed for it.  It's extortion, pure and simple, with the Sandy victims as hostages.

EricSchneider
EricSchneider

Homeowners insurance NEVER covers flood damage in any state and that is what many of these people are dealing with!

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@PhilSmith

Um, no, not even close.

With an annual budget of $200 million and a statutory surplus of over $100 million, New Jersey's MEL system is the largest municipal property/casualty risk pool in the country.

That is hardly going to cover damages in the tens of billions.  NJ alone suffered nearly $30 billion in damage.  Why do you think Christie was asking the federal government for help?

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@SERIOUSLY... 

Then don't expect all of that revenue that Blue states (like New York) provide for the Red states.

PhilSmith
PhilSmith

@GeriatricAlive The fiscal cliff bill had lots of pork rinds. All hidden in the bill at the last minute so there would be no notice by the public. Same thing will happen with the debt ceiling compromise.

Then Obama started shouting about gun control so it has been passed over.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@AfGuy

The ultimate goal of the left is to make everyone but themselves a ward of the state

Really.  Seems to me like Paul is admitting here that conservatives are the ones that suck up welfare.

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

Okay, how about the simple steps to control the exploding costs of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare like indexing the growth in benefits to inflation instead of wage increase and asking people under 55 to work another year or two before eligibility?  After all, those are the "bigger one" (the biggest, in fact).  This would address much of the shortfall yet even suggesting it implies you want to roll old people off cliffs.  We can't afford trillion-dollar deficits year-in and year-out from now on, but proposing ways to control growth in spending (not cut current spending, just control growth) is decried as barbaric. 

EricSchneider
EricSchneider

To what degree? I have yet to hear a single politician's name that put pork in this bill!

I want names, how much pork they are responsible for adding, and reninders as prevelant as their adds on TV once election times roll around!

bl
bl

@mantisdragon91 @bl @paulejb 
sorry, manitis, I forgot:  you're a liberal, and therefore, your words mean nothing.  
And everything, at the same time.
Violent, authoritarian, fascists, all of you.
And rude, too.  What vile people you are! 

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@bl @mantisdragon91 @paulejb obviously sarcasm much like reality is lost on you. And last time I checked its conservatives advocating violence by pushing for overthrow of the federal government and planning wars with countries like Iran, Iraq and Syria. But thank you for playing, try again.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@nflfoghorn

2001 – $5.871 trillion
2008 – $10.640 trillion

National Debt Increased 25% Under Obama:

Jan 31st 2009 = $10.569-trillion

Jan 31st 2011 = $14.131-tr­­illion, But of the $3.56-tril­­lion increase, 98% was carry over from Bush programs:

Bush: $910-billi­­on = Interest on Debt 2009/2011
Bush: $360-billi­­on = Iraq War Spending 2009/2011
Bush: $319-billi­­on = TARP/Bailo­­ut Balance from 2008 (as of May 2010)
Bush: $419-billi­­on = Bush Recession Caused Drop in taxes
Bush: $190-billi­­on = Bush Medicare Drug Program 2009/2011
Bush: $211-billi­­on = Bush Meicare Part-D 2009/2011
Bush: $771-billi­­on = Bush Tax Cuts 2009/2011

Bush’s contributi­­on:

2001 to 2008: $4.769-tri­­llion
2009 to 2010: $3.181-tri­­llion

Total: $7.950-tri­­llion

Increase Since 2001 = $14.131 – $5.871 = $8.26-tril­­lion

Bush’s contributi­­on: $7.950-tri­­llion / $8.26-tril­­lion = 96%

Increase caused By Bush’s Programs: 96%
Increase caused by Obama’s Programs: 4%

Paul forgets lots of things.  I mean, he did have a memory dump throughout the New Year.

rabbitwocky
rabbitwocky

@EricSchneider Color me confused. Seven Republican senators are responsible for the 'pork' in the Sandy bill. You got your answer as to whom is accountable. So why the false equivalence? It's not 'all of them' (in this case anyway). There are seven names for you to remember in 2014. (I suppose you could also blame Harry Reid, but it seems he was just bowing to the inevitable.) If you have evidence to the contrary, that there are other names to drag out, please post it for us to see.

EricSchneider
EricSchneider

I am so tired of people yelling about how it's the Red states or it's the Blue states ... IT'S ALL OF THEM!

They keep us so focused on the "other" parties evils that we lose focus of their parties evils. We need to come together as a nation and hold ALL of the accountable for this mess REGARDLESS of party or we are doomed to be a strugling super power who has "haves" and "have-nots" and 95% of us will be the "have-nots"!

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@EricSchneider 

Read the article I linked.  :p

I do agree with you though, but I have a feeling (with as short as the nation's attention span has become these days) this will be long forgotten by 2014.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@bryanfred1

roads, electrical, water, cleanup, etc. - not private property

Pretty much yes, but either way those are damages that the state alone cannot afford.

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

That's why insurance companies buy reinsurance - for when a massive claim event occurs.  If New Jersey is going to run flood insurance in its state then appropriate risk management steps should have been taken.  I know it's a moot point now since it obviously wasn't there, but I'd say this about ANY coastal state - the Federal government can't be everyone's insurance provider.

Regardless, is that what the money is going to be used for?  I assumed roads, electrical, water, cleanup, etc. - not private property.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@PhilSmith @DonQuixotic 

NJ doesn't have the resources to keep $30 billion laying around in case something like this happens.  No state does, it's why only the federal government has to step in at expenses like this.  My gosh you people are comical, if not completely heartless.

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

Disaster relief = Okay

Alaska fisheries, new cars for the Justice department, the other zillion random expenditures attached to this bill in the hope it would just pass because everyone feels sorry for the Sandy victims = Inexecusable.

This is exactly how government spending gets out of control.  "Oh, it's only a couple more billion - what's the big deal?"  Remember when a billion dollars was a lot?  The average U.S. personal income tax remittance is around $6,000 - a billion dollars is therefore equivalent to the taxes of 166,667 households.  Let Justice drive its company cars for another year, like everyone else is.

MementoMori
MementoMori

@SERIOUSLY... @DonQuixotic That 'pork' your so upset about is going to red states - Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana. It's not "Libs" you should be whining about, seriously, it's your own beloved GOP.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@SERIOUSLY... @DonQuixotic 

So the GOP will hold a disaster relief bill for Blue States hostage because of pork they themselves put into it.  Hello??  McFly??

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@SERIOUSLY... @DonQuixotic 

Funny that you shouldn't care that the source of the pork is the GOP when you open your argument with "deal with it Libs".  Oh, to be a responsible Democrat left to keep irresponsible people like you in check.

SERIOUSLY...
SERIOUSLY...

@DonQuixotic @SERIOUSLY... I don't care who put it there.  The GOP is getting backhanded by the administration and the media for holding it hostage BECAUSE of the pork!  I disdain the political firestorm that DC has become.  It is obvious that the left is OK with increased spending, to hell with the budget!

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@SERIOUSLY... @DonQuixotic

I could care less if the relief bill passes or not, since there is apparently enough money in those blue states, as you call them, to take care of it all

But there's not, certainly not if you expect these blue states that pay for welfare red states to continue to meet their obligations to the nation.  You will never get a bill like this (or any major bill) through Congress without pork.  It's how they provide funding to their constituents for local projects, it's just not going to happen.  If you're really angry at the pork in the bill then maybe you should direct your anger at the GOP that added it in to begin with.  In the meantime disaster relief like this is why our government exists. 

SERIOUSLY...
SERIOUSLY...

@DonQuixotic @SERIOUSLY... Did you read the article?  I NEVER said it was! Disaster relief is one thing that is certainly needed, but not the pork.  I could care less if the relief bill passes or not, since there is apparently enough money in those blue states, as you call them, to take care of it all.  I will say that it SHOULD pass, sans pork.  If it gets held up because of the FRIVOLOUS pork projects that have nothing to do with the SANDY RELIEF bill, then so be it.  That is common sense.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@SERIOUSLY... @DonQuixotic 

What does enormous federal revenue of damaged states have to do with the budget and the debt?  Or the economy?  Hmmm, let me think about this...

Disaster relief is not "frivolous" spending.