Most of the Tennessee lawmakers who last year requested more than $90 million for projects labeled as pork by a taxpayers' group say they are going on a pork-free diet this year.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., announced he is withdrawing his individual appropriations requests until the budget process and economic conditions improve.
"Given our country's fiscal condition, I could not in good conscience keep my name next to any earmark requests this year," Sen. Corker said last week. "It is not necessarily the overall cost of federal earmarks, which represents a very small portion of the overall budget, that poses a problem. It's the process, which is fundamentally flawed and lacks oversight."
Last year, Sen. Corker made 28 earmark requests for everything from land purchases for the Shiloh National Military Park to new equipment for a hospital in Jellico, Tenn.
His decision against making any earmark requests follows the move by members of the House Republican caucus to give up their earmark requests for fiscal 2011.
"House Republicans all agreed not to have any earmark requests for this cycle because the system is broken and in need of reform," said U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., a member of the House Appropriations Committee who helped earmark funding of $34.5 million for 14 projects in the current fiscal year.
But Tennessee's top Republican, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, isn't ready to give up on his individual efforts to fund particular projects through earmarks.
Sen. Alexander, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, made 44 earmark requests in fiscal 2010. He insists members of Congress should shape how federal funds are spent and that most earmarks are for worthwhile projects.
"When Tennesseans come to see me about keeping Chickamauga lock open, or making Center Hill Dam safe, or improving housing at Fort Campbell for the most-deployed troops in America, my job is not to give them President Obama's telephone number," Sen. Alexander said.
"Some members of Congress have abused the appropriations process," he said. "But if you have a couple of bad acts on the Grand Ole Opry, you don't cancel the Opry. You cancel the acts."
Sen. Alexander supported a one-year moratorium on earmarks two years ago. Since then, Congress has improved the process, he said.
Congress has moved to limit earmark requests that help only private, for-profit companies. Under the congressional "pay as you go" rules, any new spending on one project also is supposed to be offset by equal cuts in another program.
"Removing earmarks doesn't reduce the federal debt by one penny, since they are paid for by reducing spending for lower-priority items," Sen. Alexander said.
Last week, Citizens Against Government Waste released its 2010 "Pig Book," outlining 9,129 earmarks, collectively worth $16.5 billion, in the current fiscal year. The number of such projects this year dropped by 10.2 percent from the previous year, while the dollar value of the requests was down by 15.5 percent.
"Recent actions in the House to stop funding for-profit earmarks, and the House Republican Caucus' decision to not request earmarks, indicates that politicians from both parties recognize that taxpayers are enraged about the broken spending process in Washington," said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste in Washington, D.C.
But Mr. Schatz said his group's compilation of projects earmarked for funding by only a handful or fewer of members of Congress still shows that "most members of Congress still aren't willing to eliminate the practice, and that is why meaningful reform is necessary."
Despite the move by House Republicans to give up earmarks, Citizens Against Government Waste gave its annual "king of pork" award to a Republican in the U.S. Senate, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who was responsible for 240 earmarks costing $490 million in the current fiscal year.
In a prepared statement from Sen. Cochran's office, the senator said that he "continued to advocate for meritorious programs" omitted from President Obama's budget.
In Tennessee, Rep. Wamp has used his earmarks to keep funding for replacement work at the crumbling Chickamauga lock, a project threatened by a shortfall in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' budget.
Rep. Wamp also has used earmarks to push for a national park on Moccasin Bend and to sustain funding for engineering work for a high-speed train from Atlanta to Chattanooga. He also has targeted money for a host of military programs -- from drug control efforts by the National Guard to medical equipment for treating wounded veterans.
"Earmarks are a constitutional prerogative of the Congress, but we have to eliminate the abuses," he said.
As a candidate for governor, however, Mr. Wamp's previous earmark requests have become the target of a Republican rival, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who charges the Chattanoogan has "never seen an earmark he didn't like."
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Lt. Gov. Ramsey, the state Senate speaker, said he agrees with U.S. Sen. Corker that "earmarks in Washington, D.C." are "part of the problem."
"I know that Congressman Wamp has said he'll defend earmarks until his dying day," Lt. Gov. Ramsey said, referring to a January 2006 interview on National Public Radio.
But Mr. Wamp called the attack "disingenuous," claiming that it is time to clean up the abuses of earmarks before such directed spending resumes in the Congress.
Comparing the states
Even before the recent cutbacks in earmarks, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., a member of the House Budget Committee, gave up any earmark requests in 2009.
Sen. Corker made only two earmark requests entirely by himself for the current fiscal year: a $1.16 million lung management program for the military and $160,000 for a Tennessee National Guard training program.
Most of the earmarks requested by Sen. Corker also were promoted by Sen. Alexander or by a House member, according to congressional records.
Tennessee and Georgia already get far less in earmark funding than most states.
For its size, Tennessee ranked 47th among the states in earmarks during 2010 with $90.5 million of projects, or $14.38 per resident. Georgia fared only slightly better with $143.3 million of earmark projects valued at $14.58 per person.
By comparison, per capita earmarks nationwide were nearly double their 2010 levels of $27.36 per person.
"What it's going to take to get us on good footing are not only politicians who care about our fiscal issues, but it's also going to require citizens saying instead of some great project for Hamilton County, I'd rather you tighten your belt," Sen. Corker recently told bankers and investors during a Chattanooga speech. "It's going to take both parties to get us out of where we are."
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.
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