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Earmark Season Opens

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The floodgates are open in Congress as members are ready to begin work on a new season of appropriations bills. That can only mean one thing: more earmarks. This season, being an election year, will be frought with perils and politics for many members of Congress. Today, the House Republican conference released a new Web site to fight for earmark reform, and, of course, to put Democrats in politically precarious districts on the defensive on reform and spending. Many of these Democrats are freshmen, including Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak. In CongressDaily, Sestak explains how earmarks are used to help support these targeted freshmen:

But he acknowledged that his requests for add-ons were not always given the same priority as those of more vulnerable freshmen. "I do know this," Sestak said. "Because I wasn't on Frontline. I was not on the Tier One list for earmarks."

Indeed, senior appropriators have credited politically vulnerable freshmen for bringing funds for large, defensible projects back to their constituents.

Sestak's office appears to use a strategy, which we've seen with Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, of directing organizations and local government agencies through the grant process and, in Sestak's case in particular, of heavily vetting any and all earmark requests, especially defense earmarks:

His office put together a "how-to" guide to help local governments and organizations make grant requests in an effort to steer his constituents to use grants rather than earmarks, when appropriate. It also created a seven-page earmark request form.

But the retired three-star admiral also runs a proverbial tight ship. Sestak's office heavily vets earmark submissions.

In many cases he runs defense earmark requests by the military to make sure the project is a product they want or could use before sending letters to the subcommittee chairmen with a brief argument in support of the add-on and following up with the chairmen and committee staff. If there is an overlap between campaign contribution and earmark requests, he said, he promptly returns the contributions.

Sestak's military experience gave his defense earmarks credibility with appropriators, and helped him secure $23.4 million in military-related add-ons. Sestak's earmarks came to $32 million.

Meanwhile, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Henry Waxman is insisting the Democratic leadership freeze earmarks for the year:

"We have a problem in Congress," Waxman said in a statement that seemingly puts him in line with House Republican leaders on the issue. "Congressional spending through earmarks is out of control. I think our best approach would be to suspend all earmarks for the 2009 appropriations cycle while we consider the right reforms for the earmark process. As a result I will not submit any requests to the Appropriation Committee for this fiscal year."

Waxman praised the "real progress" made by Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wisc., in cutting earmarks in fiscal 2008 appropriations bills by 30 percent. But, he added, too many questionable projects were still being funded.

It looks to be another year of bomb throwing over earmarks. Bomb throwing, is only useful, if it results in more reform, as we've already seen, rather than simply scoring political points.