U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns introduced an amendment Wednesday that would block Nevada from getting $45 million for general highway construction projects. That money had originally been slated for a high-speed rail project, but would instead go directly to Nevada state coffers under a proposal buried within the $109 billion Senate highway spending bill.
Johanns said that meets the definition of an earmark under Senate rules, which define an earmark as a spending item inserted “primarily at the request of a senator” that goes “to an entity, or (is) targeted to a specific state.”
Johanns has eschewed earmarks since taking office in 2009, and has supported a proposed ban on them. It likely doesn’t hurt that the man behind the Nevada provision is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and a popular target of Republican scorn.
Johanns called his amendment “a matter of trust,” noting that Congress has recently operated under an earmark ban and that President Barack Obama has promised to veto any legislation containing earmarks.
“The president said he would not sign any legislation containing an earmark, and Congress has promised the American people a highway bill without earmarks,” Johanns said. “I won’t break that promise.”
Johanns’ office said Reid’s provision in the highway bill would give Nevada $45 million that had been allocated for engineering and environmental studies for a high-speed train linking Las Vegas and Southern California — a project that has yet to get off the ground.
Reid’s spokeswoman said Thursday that it doesn’t constitute an earmark.
“There is no new spending in this provision, which provides Nevada with additional flexibility and supports more than 1,500 jobs in a state that has the highest unemployment rate in the country,” spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said.
Earmarks are congressional pet spending projects by lawmakers for their states and districts. They’re often used to fund things such as new roads and bridges, grants to local police departments and community development initiatives. Critics deride them as pork-barrel projects that contribute to the huge federal deficit.
After the 2010 elections, Congress placed a moratorium on earmarking, following public outrage over a 2005 transportation bill stuffed with money for thousands of pet projects, including the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska.