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Inouye offers defense of congressional earmarks

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U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye went on the Senate floor Monday and offered a comprehensive defense of something with which he is intimately familiar — the congressional spending practice known as earmarks.

The eight-term Democrat read a nearly 2,000-word statement in advance of a vote on an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would ban earmarks from appropriations bills over the next three years.

The amendment, which is co-sponsored by two Democratic and one other Republican senator, could be voted on Tuesday as part of a larger food safety measure.

Inouye has long utilized the practice of congressionally directed spending to win billions of dollars in appropriations for Hawaii — so much so that last year he called himself the “No. 1 earmarks guy in the U.S. Congress.”

His position as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee enhances his ability to win earmarks.

But a huge budget deficit and criticism of the practice led House Republicans recently to promise a ban on earmarks next year and the Senate GOP to agree to a voluntary moratorium. President Barack Obama also has voiced support for ending earmarks.

Coburn’s legislation would go further by writing into law a ban for fiscal year 2011, 2012 and 2013 appropriations bills.

In his statement, Inouye said handcuffing Congress from spending as it sees fit would negate the powers granted it by the Constitution and transfer more spending power to the executive branch.

“The people of Hawaii did not elect me to serve as a rubber stamp for any administration,” the senator said.

He ticked off several previous earmarks that have benefited the country, including the military’s Predator drones; the Human Genome Project; the Women, Infants and Children program; the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, and the Tsunami Warning System.

“There are thousands of other earmarks just like these that over the years have made a difference in the lives of Americans,” Inouye said.

Earmarks comprise less than one-half of one percent of total federal spending, and banning them will still leave the total annual deficit at $1.3 trillion, he said.

Opponents could offer a specific plan for cutting spending or for increasing revenues, Inouye said. “Instead, they choose to mislead the American people by implying that we can balance the budget by cutting a tiny fraction of federal spending,” he added.

Moreover, Inouye contended the total dollar value of earmarks is much lower than it was a few years ago, and the process by which they are approved is much more transparent because of reforms Democrats put into place in recent years.

“The Internet makes all earmark requests available to the press and the public,” he said. “The Internet also makes all campaign contributions over $200 equally accessible. Where is the so-called corruption? Where are the ‘secret’ deals?”

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