Young to seek earmarks in defiance of GOP's 1-year ban

Erika Bolstad

WASHINGTON -- Alaska Rep. Don Young plans to barrel through the Republican Party's ban on earmarks by submitting requests regardless of his own party's one-year moratorium on the practice.

So will he get any? No one seems to know what will happen, because Republicans have never done this before. Young, a prolific earmarker who is deeply unhappy with the recently enacted GOP ban, so far appears to be the only Republican submitting any of the special budget requests, which were due late Monday.

This year, Young's office has received 289 requests totaling $1.4 billion from various groups, communities, and boroughs in Alaska, as well as from state government, said his spokeswoman, Meredith Kenny. She added that they're still deciding which projects the office will recommend, but those most likely to get a nod will focus on job creation, their contribution to Alaska's economy and health care.

"We will be submitting requests as we always have," Kenny said. "Rep. Young's stance is that as long as Alaskans continue to request federal funding for their projects of interest, he will continue requesting that funding on their behalf."

Young, one of the most senior House Republicans, has little to lose by flouting the GOP ban, although Monday a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that there could be consequences. The party's steering committee, which determines committee assignments and other matters, could intervene.

"If members don't conform to the rules of the conference, it will be an issue for the steering committee to consider," said Boehner's spokesman, Kevin Smith.

Since the top Republican on each of the House Appropriations subcommittees are essentially prohibited from budgeting any earmarks during the moratorium, it will be Democrats deciding whether earmarks are steered Young's way. Ultimately, the decision whether Alaska receives earmarks in the House budgets could come from the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. David Obey, D- Wis.

Last year, Young's successful earmarks included $1 million for infrastructure expansion at the Port of Bristol Bay, $400,000 for a sexual assault team center in Anchorage, $10 million for health care projects and economic development by the Denali Commission, and $100,000 for the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association.

It's not clear yet which projects Young will submit, but this year, among the 289 requests his office received are a $7 million application by the state of Alaska to pay for a comprehensive approach to domestic violence and sexual assault investigations. The state also seeks $1.6 million to acquire land to expand Chugach State Park. The University of Alaska asked for $1 million to develop a test bed for the analysis of wind-diesel technology for rural Alaska. And the Independent Living Council of Alaska asked for $500,000 to expand independent living services to rural Alaskans with disabilities.

Critics have long maintained that the earmarking process erodes public confidence in federal spending by allowing powerful lawmakers -- and not need or merit -- to determine where the money goes, albeit in a small portion of the federal budget.

The effort to rein in such spending began earlier this month when Democrats decided to ban earmarks to for-profit companies. Republicans responded with a one-year, flat-out ban on earmarks in appropriations bills.

Privately, some Republican congressmen grumbled, but Young so far has been the only one to say he will sidestep the moratorium.

Young, the only congressman known to a generation of Alaskans, is perhaps best known outside of the state for the earmarks in the $286 billion highway bill that he oversaw in 2005 as chairman of the House Transportation Committee. The bill contained $452 million for the Gravina Island and Knik Arm spans, which became known nationally as "bridges to nowhere" and came to symbolize the excess of earmarking.

Because of Young's prolific earmarking and the skillful earmarking of former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, earmarks to the state have come to be known by the House Appropriations Committee under the catchphrase "sweaters for salmon."

There's some confusion remaining over how House Republicans will handle earmark requests in the current highway bill and military construction bills, reports Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper.

Few had any doubt Young would try to buck the ban. "It's not surprising that the man who brought Americans the Bridge to Nowhere and told crowds in Alaska that he stuffed the highway bill like a turkey would buck the party and still ask for earmarks," said Steve Ellis, a spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based budget watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Yet Ellis was skeptical Young will be successful.

"There's no way that Republican leadership would enable him to get any earmarks," he said. "To do so would make a mockery of the moratorium that Republicans themselves approved."