Lawmakers rallied to protect parochial homestate projects from an assault by a renegade conservative as the House on Wednesday passed a spending bill for transportation, housing programs and the Internal Revenue Service.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., took to the House floor to object to such projects, forcing their sponsors to defend them in person. Flake is a foe of the time-treasured practice of dedicating federal dollars for specific projects such as community centers, sports facilities, libraries and parks.
The underlying bill passed by a 406-22 vote after a two-day debate.
Flake forced votes on four projects. Two were inserted by the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., for his district: $500,000 for an athletic center for Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa and $500,000 more for a swimming pool for the city of Banning.
Flake's amendments went by margins of about 6-to-1, reflecting the broad support for lawmakers' cherished right to direct taxpayer dollars back home. The votes came despite sentiment among the GOP's core conservative supporters that the process has gotten out of control.
Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., and other defenders of these "earmarks" said lawmakers best know the needs of their districts and that each of the projects in the bill would have economic benefits. Recipients of the money would have to produce a 40 percent local match.
"How can we with any credibility tell a federal bureaucrat, `You're wasting dollars' when we're telling them to spend ... housing dollars on athletic centers at community colleges," Flake said.
While the district projects moved ahead, Lewis has had to reduce the amount of money for earmarks in the annual spending bills, an acknowledge of tight budget times.
Thus far, lawmakers' projects total about $9.6 billion. That is slightly more than 1 percent of the spending in the 11 appropriations bills for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.
The underlying bill in the House withholds $54 million that President Bush wanted to give the IRS for hiring private debt collectors to chase unpaid taxes. Congress had authorized the program to help pursue debts that taxpayers agreed they owed but never paid.
Opponents of the program argue that using private collectors would cost more than having IRS employees do the job.
Earlier Wednesday, an Appropriations subcommittee struggled with the president's budget for domestic programs, approving a $59.8 billion bill covering NASA, the FBI, and the Commerce Department.
NASA would receive a 3 percent budget increase, to $16.7 billion. That includes $3.8 billion _ an increase of about 25 percent _ to return humans to the moon by 2020 with the intent of advancing on to Mars.
Democrats said too much money is going to the moon-Mars mission and too little for aeronautics research and science programs.
At the same time, the subcommittee restored $1.1 billion in cuts proposed by Bush to law enforcement grants for state and local governments.
The top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, said such grants have been cut by almost half since the $4.4 billion high point of the Clinton administration.
Obey also pointed to cuts for the Legal Services Corp., which provides legal aid to the poor. The agency's budget has been reduced by one-quarter since 1994, Obey said, and far more when accounting for inflation and population growth.
The battles between Republicans and Democrats involve a fairly small amount of money _ about $13 billion to spread across the spending bills. That comes to less than 2 percent of $783 billion devoted for the agency budgets that Congress passes each year.
Meanwhile, Bush's $94.5 billion measure for the war in Iraq and additional hurricane relief was set for a Senate vote Thursday that would send the measure to the White House.
"For what it costs us in two months to fight the war in Iraq, we could fix all of these bills and have money left over," Obey said.