The nearly yearlong battle in Idaho's 2nd Congressional District has been one long argument over who's the real conservative.
So eight-term incumbent Mike Simpson's steadfast defense of earmarks - a word that's become a synonym for government waste - was too wide a target for Simpson's challenger to pass up. Over the past couple of months, Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith's campaign has been hammering Simpson's votes in favor of earmarks.
Republican voters will decide May 20 whether Simpson's stance is a liability.
HISTORY OF EARMARKS
Earmarks in congressional budget bills designate federal taxpayer money for specific purposes, such as the construction of a new highway, a school or - most famously - Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere." They don't add to Congress' spending, since a budget resolution sets that amount. Earmarks direct how to spend the money.
"Eliminating earmarking wouldn't reduce the overall amount of federal spending," Simpson wrote in a letter to the Statesman in February 2006. "It would merely shift funds away from communities across the country and place that money in the accounts of federal agencies."
Earmarks have had their place in federal budgets since the first U.S. Congress in 1790, but they became more and more common over the past 20 years.
Starting in 1955, Democrats held majorities in both chambers for most of four decades. In those days, Congress worked out its spending preferences through relationships between its leadership and members of presidents' administrations.
After Republicans won majorities in both the Senate and House in 1994, they encountered an uncooperative Clinton administration. To keep their grip on spending, members of Congress increased the number and value of earmarks in appropriations bills.
Simpson, a member and now subcommittee chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, has used earmarks to fund hundreds of millions of dollars in projects in his home state. Idaho National Laboratory, a huge government research facility near Idaho Falls, is one of the state's biggest employers and a major target for these projects.
A federal earmark championed by Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo will pay to build a bus transit center that the Gardner Co. has planned for its City Center Plaza development in Downtown Boise.
'WHAT CAN WE DO FOR YOU?'
The bad side of earmarks, most people agree, occurs when Congress uses them to steer money to a district represented by a member who's vulnerable in the next election. The idea is to help an ally win votes.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., reportedly wrote a memo in 1996 that directed members of the House Appropriations Committee to give priority to earmarked projects in districts represented by vulnerable Republican freshmen.
What's especially unpopular is the "What can we do for you?" scenario: Party leaders need a few more votes to push a law over the top. A member facing a stiff re-election challenge is reluctant to vote for the bill, fearing it will cost him or her votes in the upcoming election. So leaders approach the vulnerable member and propose a taxpayer-funded project that will offset the loss of support he or she might experience after voting in favor of an unpopular bill.
Smith describes another scenario, one he says raises questions of corruption:
"People end up wanting to get money brought to their district, so they'll hire some group to bring the money home, who ends up hiring some lobbyist, who then ends up making contributions to a congressman or a senator," he said Tuesday. "And then the earmark is based on connections and not based on merit. And I oppose that. I oppose earmarks. Congress has already proven that they cannot do earmarks without the system becoming corrupt."
EARMARKS RUN AMOK
Simpson admits that Congress' love of earmarks got out of control. It led to famous funding disasters, such as that infamous Bridge to Nowhere - which wasn't technically an earmark, since it wasn't part of an appropriations bill.
Simpson supported Congress' 2007 policy that required members to post on their websites details - district, amount, purpose, etc. - of earmarks they had requested and a list of all earmarks on appropriations bills.
"If I can't defend an earmark that I've done, I shouldn't have done it," he said.
Simpson also supported the outright ban on earmarks that Republicans instituted after retaking the House in 2010. But now, he said, a measured return to the use of earmarks is warranted.
TRANSFER OF AUTHORITY
In the absence of earmarks, Congress sets the amount of money federal agencies get each year. For example, the Department of Energy's office of nuclear energy receives a certain amount of money, as do the agency's offices that manage programs for contamination cleanup, fossil fuels, renewable energy and energy efficiency.
After those budgets are set, control of the money goes to the agencies' heads, who report to the president. By banning earmarks, Republicans in Congress gave away some of their power.
Ron Paul, a Texas congressman who's a hero to America's libertarians, is an earmark believer. He told Fox News in 2009 that Congress "should earmark every penny" of the federal budget.
Even with a Republican in the White House, Simpson said, the earmark ban transfers Congress' authority to the executive branch, which is contrary to conservative principles and an abdication of Congress' constitutional responsibility.
"I know my district better than anyone in Washington, D.C.," he said. "Certainly better than the Obama administration."
Simpson believes that the administration, leading up to the 2012 election, steered transportation grants to districts that Obama needed to win re-election.
Smith's opposition to earmarks is based on a different problem: the abuse of voter trust and waste of taxpayer money.
"Congress still has the authority to identify and to fund programs," Smith said. "The problem with earmarks has been, historically, that Congress has abused them. It's based on influence and power and not based on merit."
Over the past few months, Smith's campaign has mocked Simpson for voting to fund items such as that bridge in Alaska, which would have connected Ketchikan to a nearby island and its population of about 50. The Smith campaign also has cited grape genetics research at Cornell University and the University of Maine's Lobster Institute, which works with the industry to maintain the lobster fishery in the Northeast.
"In Idaho, lobster institutes probably aren't very important. But in Maine, it's the potatoes of Idaho, if you will," Simpson said Wednesday. "Through the Department of Agriculture, we fund research into diseases and stuff that affect lobsters, just like we fund (research of) diseases that affect grains and potatoes and other things in Idaho."
The Club for Growth, a group that advocates for limited government and supports Smith's campaign, slammed Simpson in a recent flier for his vote "to send millions of our tax dollars to build a park in Nancy Pelosi's district."
That's a reference to the Presidio, a historic military base on San Francisco Bay that Congress designated in 1996 for transition to a mixed-use residential and commercial complex. The cost to taxpayers was $348 million, allocated over the course of 15 years.
Simpson wasn't a part of that 1996 vote because he hadn't been elected to Congress yet. In 2011, Simpson was one of just nine House Republicans who voted against a successful amendment that denied $15 million of the Presidio money yet to be allocated. Today, a seven-member board - six appointed by the president - manages the Presidio as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Simpson explains his vote this way: converting a costly military base into a self-sufficient development fits conservative principles. Besides, he says, almost all of the money for the project had been allocated already, so Congress might as well finish the job.
FUTURE OF EARMARKS
Days of excess gave earmarks a greasy, "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" reputation. But with today's Congress seeming to need a crisis before getting anything done, some members have come to view those old days as being not so bad.
Last year, a story on National Public Radio asked, "Could reviving earmarks get Congress moving again?"
Simpson said there is talk in Congress of allowing a return of earmarks. If that happens, he said, it probably would come with serious new restrictions in place.
In the future, he said, earmarks might be allowed only to benefit public institutions, such as universities and federal, state and local governments.
Sven Berg: 377-6275