Senator Mike Lee defends the earmark ban

Scattered around the country there are more than 1,300 Superfund Sites. These are areas where significant pollution exists and where (usually) no one is legally responsible for cleaning it up. Most of these sites are isolated, are buffered from the larger environment by natural or man-made coverings, and pose no threat to the surrounding populace (if any). The Environmental Protection Agency maintains a list of these sites, and in the fullness of time is supposed to get around to cleaning them up. (The times will be very full indeed at the current rate, but let that pass.)

Senator Mike Lee defends the earmark ban
by Gordon Jones

One of these sites, the West Lake Landfill, is in St. Louis, Mo., and thereby hangs our cautionary tale, illustrating how things get done in Washington.

A year ago the EPA finally got around to West Lake, announcing that it would oversee (not conduct) a clean up. That parenthesis is critical, because it means that private landowners will bear most of the costs, and not the taxpayer.

Cue the pols!

Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill has introduced legislation designating the Army Corps of Engineers (which has nothing else to do, apparently) as lead agency on the project, requiring an entirely new assessment (EPA’s 10-year study was apparently inadequate), and putting the costs (only $400 million!) on the U.S. taxpayer.

McCaskill is joined in this effort by Rep. Ann Wagner, who is trying to get a companion bill on the House Suspension Calendar, reserved for non-controversial bills. McCaskill will seek unanimous consent to bring up her bill on the Senate floor.

Why are these extraordinary procedures necessary? Because the bills in question have been the subject of no subcommittee or committee hearings, and so have not been reported to the full bodies with the explanatory material that normally accompanies measures spending $400 million.

These measures violate the Earmark Ban adopted by House and Senate Republicans as a result of their 2010 Tea Party revolt, and similar agreements in the House. The most visible (or is that least visible?) earmarks consisted of directions to Executive Branch agencies contained in committee reports on how to spend monies appropriated by spending bills, as distinguished from authorization bills. But that was not the sole criterion for identifying earmarks. Other characteristics of earmarks include

  • Authorization of spending or appropriations without committee hearings;
  • Measures authorizing expenditures or appropriating money affecting solely the sponsoring member’s own state or district; and
  • Measures benefiting a member’s own constituents. Manifestly, if the EPA approach is junked for the Corps approach, McCaskill’s and Wagner’s constituents will be relieved of the costs of the project.

What does any of this have to do with Mike Lee? Maybe nothing, but possibly plenty. Lee was elected in large part in revulsion against Senator Bob Bennett’s complicity in (as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee) and defense of the earmark system. Lee has been vocal in his insistence that the earmark ban adopted by Senate Republicans after his election be observed. My sources in Washington tell me that Lee is on the watch for a McCaskill move to ask unanimous consent for consideration of her bill, and he plans to object.

This is a worthy effort, and Lee deserves our support and thanks for looking after our interests in this instance. Earmarks provide the most egregious example of the mutual backscratching by which we all try to live at the expense of someone else.

Can’t be done. Mike Lee knows.

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