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Maine Members Of Congress Sign Up For New Iteration Of Federal Spending Earmarks

The dome of the U.S. Capitol
Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images

Once scorned as conduits for corruption and wasteful spending, congressional earmarks are making a comeback. They allow members of Congress to insert into spending bills special projects that directly benefit their state or districts. After a decade-long absence, earmarks have been rebranded - and according to their supporters - reformed.

Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree wants $1.2 million to help the town of Vinalhaven upgrade its downtown infrastructure to protect against coastal flooding.

So does independent U.S Angus King, who would also like to spend $1.7 million to help Old Orchard Beach update its wastewater treatment facility

Republican U.S. Sen. Collins and Democratic Congressman Jared Golden are requesting about $1 million to help rebuild a fire station in Rumford.

These spending items are what used to be called earmarks. Now they're called Community Project Funding requests.

"We're on the ground. We have a good idea of project that are particularly important to fund, or should be priorities," Pingree said.

Congresswoman Pingree's position is shared by most of Maine's delegation.

Sen. King says that without earmarks, there's too much spending discretion for Washington bureaucrats.

"I think Susan Collins and I, and Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree know better what the projects that are important in Maine are then somebody buried in the basement of the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Transportation here in Washington," he said.

Sen. Collins, whose reelection campaign last year frequently touted her ability to secure federal funding in the non-earmark era, says the new iteration of earmarks ensures that Congress maintains tighter control over its constitutional power of the purse.

"Regardless of which party is control of the presidency or the Congress, it seem to me to be unwise for Congress to surrender its authority to direct funding to specific, worthwhile projects in their state," she said.

"You mentioned earmarks as the gateway drug to spending addiction. That's the best description that I can think of," said former Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, a Republican, testifying for the elimination of earmarks in 2010.

He argued they were vehicles for corruption, wasteful spending, and ballooning budgets despite their relatively low percentage in budget bills.

It became a popular view in both parties, especially after the 2010 election when Republicans made big gains in the U.S. House by arguing for a purge of pork-happy politicians.

Former President Barack Obama took notice in a weekly radio address that same year.

"We can't afford bridges to nowhere like the one that was planned a few years back in Alaska," Obama said.

The "bridge to nowhere" was a $400 million earmark that was meant for a bridge between the Alaskan city of Ketchikan and Gravina Island.

It became a symbol of rampant pork-barrel spending and a punching bag for congressional earmarks.

The old earmarks also landed some members of Congress in prison, but Sen. Collins argues the bad overshadowed the good, including two earmarks that she secured in the early 2000s that benefitted two Maine community colleges.

"I think many members of the public have a negative view toward earmarks because there were indeed some abuses in the past," she said.

But supporters of the new earmarks like Congresswoman Pingree say the process is more transparent and accountable now.

"You know, people felt that there were too many loopholes, too many places for ethical problems to come up, you know, just a whole variety of issues," Pingree said.

In the House, members are limited to 10 projects apiece that must be disclosed on their official websites along with sworn statements that they don't personally benefit.

While there's no such limit in the Senate, Maine members in both chambers have chosen beneficiaries that are non-profits or government organizations.

King says the reforms should help turn earmarks from a dirty word into something constituents can trust.

"I think it will improve the process and certainly I think it will improve the rationality of the flow of funds into various projects in the state of Maine," he said.}

This week Sens. Collins and King submitted a combined 104 earmark requests totaling roughly $460 million.

Pingree and Golden's requests total about $13.4 million.

There's still some resistance from Republicans to earmarks, but Pingree and Collins could be in a good position to bring them to fruition because of their lofty positions on the Senate and House appropriations committees.

This week Pingree's office announced that all 10 of her requests had made it into the latest House funding bill.