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No earmarks in U.S. spending bill, but plenty of money for folks back home

The U.S. Capitol dome is pictured in the pre-dawn darkness in this general view taken in Washington, October 18, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Erns
The U.S. Capitol dome is pictured in the pre-dawn darkness in this general view taken in Washington, October 18, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Erns

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Earmarks may be a thing of the past for Congress, but lawmakers still tout their ability to deliver the bacon through a $1.1 trillion federal spending bill that won passage in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The 1,582-page bill is officially free of the spending for pet projects that spurred public outrage and were banned in 2010 after Republicans won control of the House of Representatives.

But with November congressional elections looming, lawmakers from both parties are promoting their roles in shaping the legislation in ways that will improve life back home. The bill, which funds wide swaths of the U.S. government, is expected to pass the Senate by the end of the week.

Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas said in a press release that he helped win $404 million for a home-state facility to study foreign animal disease outbreaks. He also noted that the bill would create jobs by funding an Air Force base expansion in the state.

Republican Rep. Mike Simpson highlighted spending increases he secured for a nuclear-research facility in his Idaho district.

Three Democratic House members from the San Diego region - Scott Peters, Susan Davis and Juan Vargas - said the bill pays for more traffic lanes at a busy Mexican border checkpoint.

Those projects bear little similarity to widely ridiculed historic earmarks like the Teapot museum in North Carolina or the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska, which came to symbolize wasteful government spending.

Although current spending provisions are not labeled as earmarks, "they're earmark-ish, they're earmark-esque," said Steve Ellis, an analyst at the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Simpson, for example, influences nuclear program spending as head of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. The final bill increases spending for the Idaho National Laboratory, a nuclear-research facility in Simpson's district, by at least $24 million over the administration's request. It also adds another $22 million for clean-up of his state's contaminated nuclear-energy and weapons testing sites.

A Simpson spokeswoman called the spending appropriate for a vital federal facility.

"The Idaho National Laboratory is a federally owned, federally funded national laboratory dedicated to energy research and national security, so of course it received funding," Simpson spokeswoman Nikki Watts said.

Staffers for Moran and Peters said projects they championed could not be classified as earmarks because they originated with the Obama administration, not with Congress.

"These projects are about as far from earmarks as you can get," said Moran spokeswoman Garrette Silverman.

Not every benefit in the bill entails a spending hike.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who as chairman of the Appropriations Committee led negotiations on the bill, said in a press release that it would help her state's struggling seafood industry by bringing in more foreign workers to pick crabs and shuck oysters during harvest time.

Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, who hopes to unseat Landrieu in November, both touted the bill's inclusion of a one-year delay to a planned flood-insurance premium for state homeowners.

Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano added a provision to delay plans by the cash-strapped Postal Service to sell historic post office buildings - a priority in his Bronx, New York, district, where residents face the potential loss of a landmark building filled with Depression-era murals.

Serrano said his rider is not an earmark because it does not involve spending and also would apply to historic Post Office buildings nationally.

He said earmarking once helped out local interests that otherwise could not navigate the federal bureaucracy.

"It gave a member of Congress who knows his or her community best an opportunity to bring dollars to local originations that ordinarily would not get a cent from the federal government because they don't have the contacts," he said in an interview.

Some analysts say the earmark ban has contributed to recent fiscal crises, giving lawmakers fewer incentives to pass spending bills.

Besides, there is nothing wrong with protecting local interests, said Sean Kelly, a political science professor at California State University Channel Islands who studies the federal budgeting process.

"This is members of Congress doing what they're supposed to do, which is advocating for their programs, for their districts. That's what the game is about," he said.

Some Republicans are beginning to question their party's rigid stance on earmarks. Texas Republican Reps. John Carter and John Culberson, who hold senior positions on the House Appropriations Committee, have said recently that the earmark ban shifted too much spending control to the Obama administration.

But House Speaker John Boehner said the ban has helped Republicans rein in spending.

"Republicans have listened to the American people and kept their promise to end business as usual in Washington," Boehner's office said.

Serrano said the significance of earmarks had been overblown.

"I remember once they attacked a cheese museum in Wisconsin. That's an easy one, because it sounds funny, but cheese is very important to Wisconsin, and it's been a part of their culture for a long time," he said. "What's important to one state or one member of Congress may not sound that important to a reporter from another place."

(Additional reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Marilyn Thompson and Dan Grebler)

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