Tester defends vote against earmark ban

Lee State Bureau

by Charles S. Johnson

HELENA — Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., on Thursday defended his vote this week against banning earmarks, warning that it would be bad for Montana and have little effect on the federal debt.

“The earmark ban would not save any money,” Tester said in an interview. “Money just gets shifted over to the administration. It takes power from the legislative branch over to the executive branch.”

An attempt to ban earmarks failed in the Senate on Tuesday on a 39-56 vote, with Tester and fellow Democratic Sen. Max Baucus opposing it.

The state's lone congressman, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, has been a strong supporter of the ban this year. Rehberg called it “disappointing, but not surprising” that the Senate voted to “continue business as usual in Washington.”

Earmarks are amendments to the federal budget that members of Congress carve out to direct funds to specific local projects, usually in their states.

Critics say the money saved by banning them could be used to reduce the federal debt. Tester said the size of the federal budget will remain exactly the same.

“If you turn it over to the executive branch, the Obama administration, you've got bureaucrats who have probably never been to Montana deciding where to spend the money,” Tester said.

Tester said he has gone to see nearly every project for which he's sought earmarks and can defend them.

Earmarks today are public and transparent, unlike the notorious Bridge to Nowhere, the controversial earmarked project for Alaska that became an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, Tester said. They also are subject to scrutiny by fellow senators and the public, he said.

“If they don't stand the scrutiny on the floor of the Senate after I've made my case, that's OK,” he said.

Banning earmarks would hurt rural Montana, Tester said. He cited earmarks that are funding the not-yet-completed north-central and northeastern Montana water projects that bring clean water to communities in those areas.

Earmarks have funded water and water treatment projects in Helena, Bozeman, Butte and Missoula and in other Montana cities and towns, the senator said.

Helena will benefit from the Custer Avenue Interchange funded by earmarks, Tester said, while Billings has seen the benefit of earmarks that helped pay for improvements to Shiloh Road and Bench Boulevard.

“For federal resources, a project like the new Shiloh Road in Billings would have a tough time competing with the potholes that need to be filled on the New Jersey Turnpike,” he said.

Tester said earmarks have helped to fund economic development across Montana, such as FLIR Systems, a Bozeman company that has doubled its Montana workforce in three years, primarily because of military research and development earmarks.

When the new Congress convenes in January, Tester said, all earmarks may be at risk.

The House, which will turn Republican, may ban earmarks, while the Senate, where Democrats will have a smaller majority, may be under pressure to do the same.

“I think it could be very negative for Montana,” he said, adding that it would increase the potential for backroom deal making.

Asked about President Barack Obama's backing of the earmark ban, Tester said, “If I was the president, I'd support the ban, too. That gives him the entire jurisdiction. His budget has thousands of earmarks.”

Tester said he is focusing on other ways to cut spending and personally cut $6 billion from the federal unemployment insurance law earlier this year.

He said he has voted twice against his own pay raise and will continue to do so.

“I was the only member of my party to vote against both bailouts of Wall Street and the U.S. auto industry,” he said in an accompanying statement.

“I'm willing to put all options to cut spending on the table, not political stunts.”