11:41 PM PDT on Saturday, October 9, 2010

Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – House Republicans last month unveiled their Pledge to America, an ambitious and wide-reaching document that details their plans to shrink government, cut spending and repeal President Barack Obama’s prized health care law, if voters return them to power next month.

Conspicuously absent from the 48-page pledge is any reference to earmarks, the spending directives that lawmakers slip into bills, usually for projects and programs in their home districts. That, experts and political insiders say, is because the GOP has yet to reach consensus over what to do about the controversial practice.

“There is some division within the conference on that issue,” said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Some members are more opposed (to earmarks) than others.”

Annually, earmarked dollars represent less than one percent of the federal budget, but a series of congressional scandals — involving both Republicans and Democrats — has brought so-called “pork barrel spending” enough negative attention to prompt the GOP to declare an earmark moratorium for the current year.

For regions like Inland Southern California, which sends far more money to Washington in taxes than it gets back in federal spending, earmarks have become a dependable source of funding for new roads, medical research, police department equipment and a host of projects and programs around the region.

Led by Inland Rep. Jerry Lewis, one of the leading earmarkers in the House, the region’s congressional delegation has steered hundreds of millions of dollars to Riverside and San Bernardino counties in the past five years alone.

Unity questioned

Some Republicans, including Lewis, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, defend the right of lawmakers to direct spending. Lewis points to the constitutional provision giving Congress the power of the purse, and argues that representatives of an area often know better than bureaucrats in Washington where money should be spent.

But others within his party want to extend the moratorium or give up the practice altogether as a demonstration fiscal restraint, said Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group that tracks earmarks.

“They’re all mixed up — the conference is not entirely in agreement in what to do next,” Ellis said. “Some would like to see nothing done. Some would like to see something like complete abolishment.”

Publicly, Republicans say they are unified behind a commitment to end the kind of practices that led to the infamous $223 million “bridge to nowhere,” which was meant to connect mainland Alaska to an island inhabited by 50 people, and the conviction of former Southern California congressman Duke Cunningham, who was caught trading earmarks for bribes.

“It will be up to the next Congress,” House GOP Leader John Boehner said of the earmark debate following a speech last week in Washington. “But I am here to tell you that we are not going to see earmarks as we’ve seen in the past under a Republican majority if I’m the speaker of the House.”

Lewis, R-Redlands, and Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, another appropriator who has been adept at steering earmarks to the region, have backed Boehner’s tough talk on earmarks. Both have said they would abide by whatever the Republican conference decides, and each has said action is needed to reform the process.

“Business isn’t going to be as usual,” Calvert said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

But Ellis of the taxpayer’s group questioned whether the mere agreement among Republicans that something must be done would mean anything when the dust settles after the election.

“When you don’t get down to specifics, it’s easy to agree,” he said.

Any policy must take into consideration that Senate Republicans may still seek earmarks, as might Democrats, who imposed new rules prohibiting earmarks for private firms this year but stopped short of a moratorium.

Debate overblown?

If the Republicans win the House, which some leading political analysts now say is more likely than not, Lewis could become chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Since the chairman presides over the 12 annual spending bills that fund government, Lewis would be ideally positioned to secure funding for Inland needs if the practice is allowed to continue.

Republicans generally follow term-limit guidelines for certain positions. Having served as top GOP House appropriator for three congressional terms, including one as chairman from 2005 to 2006, Lewis would technically be termed out of the seat.

But he could be granted a waiver allowing him to return to the powerful post. The waiver would depend on a vote of the GOP steering committee, on which both Lewis and Calvert sit. Boehner, who has never sought earmarks, would get five votes as top House Republican, giving him large sway over the decision.

Given Lewis’ record as a prolific earmarker, Jon Fleischman, who runs the conservative FlashReport Web site, said he would be a poor choice for a party trying to show it is serious about cutting spending and reforming Washington.

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