Earmark ban could cost Kentucky, McConnell re-elected as GOP Senate leader



Posted on November 16, 2010 at 7:18 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 17 at 10:59 AM

(WHAS11) - A victory for the Tea Party could cost the state of Kentucky tens of millions of dollars in future federal funding.

The Senate Republican Caucus voted Tuesday for a two year non-binding ban on earmarks, which could be followed by a binding floor vote.  Coupled with a similar vote expected on Thursday by House Republicans and support from President Barack Obama, the manner in which federal funds are doled out for lawmakers' pet projects has suddenly changed.

The earmark moratorium comes with the blessing of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, who stunned Washington on Monday by reversing his staunch defense of the earmark process.  On Tuesday, fellow Republicans reelected McConnell for a third consecutive Congress as Republican Leader of the Senate. 

Though several GOP Senate veterans are balking at the earmark ban, McConnell's shift appears to have won him the support of the Tea Party infused Republican freshman class.  Senator-elect Marco Rubio, a Tea Party darling, nominated McConnell for Senate Minority Leader.

It's a position that McConnell has used to great effect in the appropriations process.  According to records tracked by the web site, Legistorm.com, McConnell requested $927 billion in earmarks over the last two years.  In fact, his clout was the basis of his reelection campaign two years ago.

At an October 2008 campaign stop in Grayson County, McConnell was unabashed in his earmark prowess:

"The guy you're lookin' at, your Senator, the Republican Leader of the Senate, brought home to the Commonwealth last year $500 million."

While voters in 2008 applauded McConnell bringing home the bacon, McConnell says voters in 2010  have demanded changes and an end to earmarks, the very legislative tool McConnell has used in the past to secure billions of dollars for Kentucky projects, such as the clean-up at Paducah's Gaseous Diffusion Plant, the dismantling of chemical wepaons at Bluegrass Army Depot, and hundreds of construction projects from schools to dams, chapels and medical facilities.

Institutions of higher learning are also a substantial focus of McConnell's earmarks.  Over the last two years, the University of Louisville has collected about $33 million in McConnell earmarks.  In that same period, the University of Kentucky received about $22 million. 

"We're proud of Sen. McConnell and proud of the work he's done to help the University of Louisville meet the academic, research and economic development needs of our students, community and state," said University of Louisville President James Ramsey in a statement, "We know Senator McConnell will continue to be a friend to UofL while trying to address the fiscal realities facing our country."

One of the most striking examples of McConnell's earmarking clout came in 2005 when McConnell slipped in $38 millon for Louisville's 21st Century Parks project.  It was roughly ten times what the group expected.

"Mitch McConnell is a hero to me," parks visionary and Louisville businessman David Jones said when accepting the earmark, "He's a hero to Louisville.  He's a hero to all the people who will use these incredible spaces."

Yet, the undoing of Kentucky's senior senator's earmark practice has in part been orchestrated by Kentucky's newest junior senator, fellow Republican Rand Paul, who is part of a new band of fiscal conservatives who campaigned against the very process that has helped make McConnell so effective.

Asked in April if he would be opposed to the 21st Centrury Parks funding, Paul said it was "too specific" an example.  

"I'm not against federal spending on certain things," Paul explained in the April interview, "There will be money spent.  I say let's base the decision on what is spent on the quality of the project.  Let's don't base it....  I'm for changing the system.  Let's don't base it on the seniority of the senator."

After decades building up his seniority, McConnell is forfeiting at least one of the benefits with the earmark ban.

"We have a great opportunity here to demonstrate that we are responding to what the American people clearly would like for us to do,"  McConnell said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth who begins his third term in January, requested $20.5 million in earmarks over the past two years. 

Asked how he would use earmarks in the future, Yarmuth said he would have to wait to see whether House Republicans ban earmarks.

“It is unclear whether there will be an earmarking process in the House next year," Yarmuth said in a statement, "However, there will always be stiff competition over the allocation of federal resources. I’ll continue to fight to ensure Louisville receives its fair share of federal dollars – particularly when the choice is between investing in our community or another Congressional district.”