"Is it an earmark once the Congress of the United States has authorized this as a national priority?"
After the Springfield News Leader's Chad Livengood and the Terry Ganey of the Columbia Tribune both penned pieces about the earmark process and what defines it, I began recalling a conversation I had with Congressman Roy Blunt on March 20th of this year about the same topic.
As Livengood pointed out in his story, the specific definition of "earmark" seems to vary depending on who you speak to. In my interview, Blunt suggested that many of the so-called earmarks he sponsors shouldn't be labeled as such. He repeatedly raised questions about how to define an earmark, and said he has "always been for going through the entire process."
To provide context, this portion of the interview, which I never got around to publishing, dealt with earmark transparency. But looking back, I think it gives a glimpse into the mind of how the GOP U.S. Senate candidate views the specific spending projects he's brought back to the district for years.
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"Lot of my so-called designated spending was first authorized," said Blunt. "And John McCain or nobody else believes that that's truly a so-called earmark.
Blunt seemed to question if a project should be labeled "an earmark" if it has been designated as a national priority. "If it an earmark once the Congress of the United States has authorized this as a national priority? John McCain says that's not an earmark," Blunt said, seemingly answering his own question. "If it's a tax provision that only affects 20 companies in the whole country, is that an earmark?"
Towards the end, Blunt seemed to lay out his own standards: "It should have a committee vote, it should have a floor vote. It should have a conference committee vote."
But when asked if he ever slipped something into a bill without these votes, Blunt replied, "I don't know that I've never had anything put in at the last minute, but I've always been for going through the entire process."
The Notebook contacted two former state appropriators for their definition of earmarks on the state level, and whether the process is at all comparable to a federal earmark.
Former Rep. Ken Legan served as the ranking Republican appropriator in the State House from 1981 to 2002; State Sen. Wayne Goode was a Democratic Budget Chair in the Senate from 1984 to 2000. Here is a summary of their thoughts, extracted from our conversations:
Rep. Legan: "Some members have pet projects. It's not like an earmark, they make a case for it. Some mistakenly call them earmarks, but it's not the same. To my knowledge, I have never saw any money go into the budget under the table that I didn't know about. If you go line by line through the state budget, you 'll know exactly what's in there. On the federal level, they get things in there that the committee doesn't always see, the way I understand it. It's altogether different. I couldn't slip something in without nobody knowing about it. Now, you can take an amendment to the budget chair, and if the chair says no, you are out of luck. If he says yes, it goes through the full committee and then to the full House. But to me, they are different processes."
Sen. Goode: "It's somewhat the same, but the appropriations process itself is not as loose and unstructured as it is on the federal level. As a member of the House or Senate, you could offer an amendment to the operating budget bills to fund a pet program, but it's not likely to go anywhere without support. In a capital improvement bill, could you stick something in and it not be known? No, not really. If you can get a majority of votes, it's in the bill. You can kind of look at that as an earmark, but it's a limited process. On the federal level, various Senators get the chairman to put (an earmark) in the bill, but an entire bill can be voted on without that particular item. The way it works in Missouri, is that you always need a majority vote somewhere -- either in committee or on the floor. It doesn't really work like it does in Congress. The process is tighter, more structured on the state level. I think at some point there should be an up or down vote on each level, either the committee level or on the floor. There's a big difference between doing it in a public way and sticking it in because you want it."