Republicans sponsor, but don’t advocate, pork barrel spending

U.S. Rep. Dean Heller was a major advocate of earmarks in the omnibus spending bill approved by Congress.

U.S. Rep. Dean Heller requested earmarks totaling more than $32 million in the 2009 Omnibus Spending Bill, then voted against the bill.

The Nevada Republican’s own earmarks were inserted in the bill and, if the bill had been approved, would have resulted in nearly $2 million going to entities like St. Mary’s and Carson Tahoe hospitals. He also joined other legislators—mainly Harry Reid—in seeking earmarks totaling more than $30 million.

Republican Sen. John Ensign signed onto $52,589,000 of earmarks and had one solo earmark.

Democratic Sen. Harry Reid had $26,628,613 in earmarks of his own and $108,705,429 in earmarks he shared with other legislators.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a private Washington group that recruits Democratic House candidates and tries to soften up Republicans, made an issue of Heller’s seeking pork from a bill he knew was certain to pass while still trying to keep his skirts clean politically by casting a vote the other way.

“It is hypocritical,” said Andrew Stone of the DCCC. “Congressman Heller sought funding for projects in his district, then voted against them—that’s blatant hypocrisy.”

Asked if it isn’t a legitimate tactic for members of the House who oppose large spending measures to nevertheless not put their districts and states at a disadvantage against other members, Stone declined further comment.

Heller’s solo earmarks were $300,000 for “Western Nevada Development district for small business job creation,” $95,000 for “development and enhancement of an historically significant downtown corridor to attract business and generate jobs” in Fernley, $332,500 for street-scaping and construction of an indoor recreation facility in Wells, $571,000 for Carson Tahoe Hospital, $190,000 for the Pershing County Hospital and Nursing Home in Lovelock, $190,000 for St. Mary’s, and $250,000 for Secret Witness for anti-methamphetamine efforts.”

Rep. Heller’s office did not respond to an invitation to comment on the dispute.

Earmarks that Heller joined Reid on included money for wastewater treatment in Henderson ($400,000) and Reno ($500,000); terrain restoration in areas damaged by the Waterfall fire ($269,000); construction of an interchange on U.S. 395 near Meadowood Mall ($1,254,000); the Nevada Medical School’s Center for Molecular Medicine ($571,000); anti-meth efforts in Carson City ($400,000); and a Renewable Energy Center, site unnamed but presumably at the UNR Redfield campus facility of that name ($475,750).

On other earmarks, Heller and Reid also joined other legislators—Ensign, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley of Clark County, and several legislators from other states, including John Conyers, Edward Kennedy, John Kerry, Frank Lautenberg and Patrick Leahy.

These last five names were on a $1,800,000 earmark for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, headquartered in Reno.

Heller’s willingness to piggyback on liberal icons like Kennedy and Conyers and to join Reid, who Nevada Republicans are trying to defeat, cast his final vote against the entire bill into still greater relief.

The cost of Heller’s solo earmarks is $1,928,500 and his join earmarks $30,564,250, for a grand total of $32,492,750.

“You can’t tell me that there’s no waste in Washington,” Ensign said in a written statement after the bill containing 36 of his requests for federal money was enacted. “We just spent a trillion dollars on a so-called stimulus bill. A little extra time to get this one right would have gone a long way.”

There was no roll call vote in the Senate. It was passed on a voice vote. It contained one solo earmark sponsored by Ensign—funding of an unnamed amount for work on Incline and Third creeks in the Lake Tahoe basin.

“That Ensign is simultaneously aligning himself with the anti-earmark crowd while generously indulging in the practice is the very definition of hypocrisy,” a Las Vegas Sun editorial argued.

Ensign responded in a letter to the editor that there are different types of earmarks and that some recipients of the benefits—small states—are more worthy than others.

“My support for legitimate earmarks in no way compromises my principles on fiscal responsibility,” Ensign wrote. “Earmarks have a valuable role for smaller states like Nevada to compensate for insufficient federal funding.”

The rest of the letter was a denunciation of earmarks. It was not clear from his letter what is and what is not legitimate pork—or who gets to decide.

This selective stance toward earmarks—OK for Ensign, not for others—undercut criticism he made of President Obama last week. Ensign was critical of Obama on Wednesday for staking out positions in the campaign and then “selectively” following them.

“The president should uphold what he campaigned on,” Ensign said on Fox News. “They seem to selectively like to choose what policies and principles that they’re going to stand on.”

He cited the spending bill and its earmarks—some of them sponsored by Ensign himself—as examples.

However, Ensign’s previous denunciations of earmarks have not included the exceptions he now advocates.

For instance, an Aug. 2, 2007, an Ensign news release was categorical in its denunciation of earmarks: “Earmarks amount to millions and millions of unaccountable federal dollars often passed into law without a hearing or debate. … The American people have demanded earmark reform for long enough. Without truly changing the way earmarks are put into bills, we are not addressing the root of the problem. The American taxpayers want a process that is honest and transparent, and this bill does not go far enough when it comes to earmarks and pork barrel spending.”

In contrast with Ensign, Reid said there is nothing wrong with earmarks and offered a stout defense of them, though his justification resembled Ensign’s “small state” rationalization: “I have an obligation to the people of Nevada to make sure there is not some bureaucrat down in one of these big offices in Washington, D.C., who determines every penny spent in Nevada.”

Reid is using this approach regularly. Last month, he phrased it this way: “Since we’ve been a country, we have had the obligation, as a Congress, to help direct spending. We cannot let spending be done by a bunch of nameless, faceless bureaucrats buried in this town someplace, to take care the needs of the state of Nevada, Washington and New York.”

Ensign’s criticism of Obama did not keep the two of them from jointly advocating an earmark. If Heller’s coziness with Kennedy, Kerry and the other Democrats was noticeable, Ensign trumped it. He joined with President Obama on one presidential earmark, an unspecified amount of money for seepage/stability work on Martis Creek Dam in California.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.