Wicker, Cochran see GOP earmarks ban differently

JACKSON — Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker says he supports his party’s nonbinding ban on federal earmark spending for pet projects, but his more-senior Mississippi colleague Thad Cochran is less enthusiastic and isn’t saying whether he will follow it.

Cochran is the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and was the biggest sponsor of earmarks in the most recent federal budget year. He has long used his seniority to steer money to universities, hospitals, military bases and other institutions in Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the nation.

Congressional Republicans, including Cochran and Wicker, voted this week for a nonbinding resolution to abstain for two years from using earmarks to set aside money for specific projects back home. The resolution applies only to Republicans — not Democrats.

Cochran said he will “take the views of my Republican colleagues to heart,” but added that he doesn’t want Congress to give President Barack Obama or executive-branch agencies more control over spending, as opposed to lawmakers.

“I remain unconvinced that fiscal prudence is effectively advanced by ceding to the Obama administration our constitutional authority to determine federal expenditures, but an earmark moratorium is the will of the Republican Conference,” Cochran said in a news release.

Cochran was first elected to the Senate in 1978, after six years in the House. Wicker has been in the Senate since late 2007, after nearly 13 years in the House.

Wicker said in his own news release: “While I have concerns about turning over more power to the administration and federal bureaucrats, I think it is important that Congress take a timeout and review the earmark process.”

The temporary ban, even if enforced, might be more of a symbolic gesture than a real effort to cut federal spending, said Rob Mellen, a political science professor at Mississippi State University.

The $16 billion for earmarks overall last year amounted to one-half of 1 percent of the $3.5 trillion federal budget. Some have derided the earmarks as a form of pork-barrel spending, and Obama recently reiterated his own call for limits on the congressional practice.

Mellen said public anger over the earmarks is out of proportion to their minuscule share of the budget. He said the resolution “appeases certain elements of the Republican base, particularly the tea party.”

An analysis by the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense shows that during the federal budget year that ended Sept. 30, Cochran took home more earmarks than any senator of either party. Cochran was a joint sponsor of nearly $497.6 million in earmarks and a solo sponsor of $102.4 million.

Wicker, buoyed by his home-state affiliation with Cochran, was joint sponsor of $368 million in earmarks. That put him third-highest on the list of jointly sponsored earmarks. He was not in the top 10 of solo sponsors.

Mellen he doesn’t believe an earmark ban will last long, and that he believes lawmakers will try to influence federal agencies to steer money to their home states: “They’ll find a way to manipulate where that money goes.”

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Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press