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.