HELENA — Freshly re-elected U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg has asked Montana's U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester to join congressional Republicans in their quest to end earmarks, the amendments to the president's budget proposals that direct federal funds to specific local projects.
Baucus responded Tuesday, accusing Rehberg of using “loopholes” in his own party's ban to push projects he supports, and pointing to the importance of federal funding to Montana's economy and state budget.
Montana has long been a leader in the per capita federal funds it receives. Democrats have mostly defended the practice, saying that they know better than federal bureaucrats where to spend tax dollars, but recently both President Barack Obama and Gov. Brian Schweitzer have voiced opposition to earmarks.
Rehberg called Senate Democrats “the final holdouts of an antiquated spending culture where elected officials fight to spend more and more tax dollars.” He also repeated his call for a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.
Federal earmarks totaled about $16.5 billion last year — 0.3 percent of the federal budget — and supporters say they merely redirect funds already appropriated to federal agencies, adding nothing to the federal deficit. Opponents say banning earmarks is an important first step in reversing Washington's culture of spending.
In his letter, Baucus pointed to earmarks Rehberg has supported or championed, as well as separate spending bills for rural water projects recently sponsored by Rehberg.
“I commend you for your efforts to provide this vital support to areas of Montana that need it most,” Baucus wrote. “But I worry that projects like these will be banned under the earmark moratorium you signed. Do you intend to abandon these bills next Congress, or have you received permission from the House of Representatives' Republican leadership to use loopholes in the earmark moratorium and introduce these important Montana bills?”
Baucus also noted that federal funding overall — including nonearmarked funds like those for major highway projects — provided 43 percent of Montana's state budget in 2010.
“Montana depends on the federal dollars you have long supported,” Baucus wrote.
While the impact of earmarks on the overall federal budget may be small, the symbolism of earmarks is significant, said James Lopach, a political science professor at the University of Montana.
“Part of the message of the 2010 election was that politicians were using their positions for partisan benefit and to some degree for personal benefit, and they were incapable of listening or coming up with policies for the broader public interest,” he said.
“By their very nature, it's 'You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours,'” he said of earmarks.
He said it's unclear if the Republicans' newfound opposition to earmarks will lead to real reforms, or if they are merely taking political advantage of the current outcry against government spending. With many Republicans thriving on the politics of earmarks until recently, he likened the opposition to that of the repentant sinner caught in the act. Relapse remains a possibility.
“As 2012 approaches, can they resist the temptation?” he asked.
Lopach said he could envision some kind of compromise system in which states are allotted certain funding, with the congressional delegations and maybe governors working to direct to the spending to the most worthy local projects.
A tough part of any reform, he said, is that states are addicted to the money.
For Montana, current earmarks working through the congressional appropriations include millions of dollars for private technology companies; water infrastructure systems in cities, small towns and on Indian reservations; highway interchanges and other road construction; agricultural research; and schools, hospitals and law enforcement projects.
“You can see how difficult it is for the system to wean itself from them,” Lopach said.