Former lawmakers' earmarks keep pet projects alive

A $410 billion bill that would keep the government running through September directs $227 million to pet projects for former lawmakers, including an ex-congressman facing corruption charges, a USA TODAY analysis shows.

The short-term budget, which Congress failed to complete last year and is now headed to a Senate vote this week, includes seven projects worth $1.2 million for Rick Renzi, a former Republican congressman indicted in 2008 on charges stemming from a land deal in Arizona. It also includes $1 million in projects requested by former senator Larry Craig, R-Idaho, arrested in 2007 as part of a sex sting.

"These projects have a life after political death," said Steve Ellis, vice president of the Taxpayers for Common Sense, which provided the data for the USA TODAY analysis. "The concern that we would have is that their constituents don't really have a way to hold them accountable anymore."

Some lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., have pressed President Obama to veto the bill in part because it includes, according to the taxpayer group, $7.7 billion for legislative projects known as "earmarks." As a candidate, Obama pledged to change the earmark process and reduce spending on them.

Calling the bill "last year's business," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama would crack down on such spending in future budget bills. "The president will lay out some very clear objectives on how we move forward," Gibbs said.

There are 458 projects requested solely by former lawmakers, the analysis shows. Most were Republicans because the party suffered big losses in November. Among the Democrats: former representative Hilda Solis, Obama's Labor secretary, who was the sole sponsor of $2.5 million in projects.

Renzi requested $150,000 for the Pinal County Sheriff for drug enforcement and an additional $614,000 for road and bridge projects. His attorney could not be reached for comment.

Other former House members include Ralph Regula, an Ohio Republican who requested $7.9 million, including $475,000 for a bicycle trail. "There isn't one of those that I can't justify as having a very positive impact," Regula said.

House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Kirstin Brost said that it would not make sense to pull money from a project from communities just because they have a new member of Congress. "If something was in the public interest a few months ago," she said, "there is no reason to believe it won't still be in the public interest today."

Orphan earmarks

The $410 billion budget bill now in the Senate includes at least 458 projects totaling nearly $227 million that were inserted into the bill at the sole request of former members of Congress. Here are the projects and their sponsors:

Source: Taxpayers for Common Sense

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