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Could an earmark have squeezed into pork-barrel warrior Paul Ryan's latest Pentagon bill?


n March 2010, a Democratic-led House banned earmarks for for-profit corporations. A Republican-led House reaffirmed the ban in November 2012.

Current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has long been a staunch advocate for earmark reform, and fought tooth-and-nail to have them removed from the legislative process.

But barely nine months into his speakership, a potential earmark has squeaked through the current Republican majority under Ryan's leadership.

It's an amendment submitted by Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN) to the Pentagon appropriations bill for a $25 million contract expected to go to a company in his district.

Speaker Ryan's anti-earmark promise.

What exactly is an earmark? It's a piece of legislation, usually a bill amendment, that directs taxpayer dollars towards a specific project, program or organization. Earmarks are sometimes interchangeably referred to as "pork barrel spending" -- essentially a representative's pet project that directly benefits their district.

Examples include roads, bridges and local infrastructure projects. The definitions of earmarks and "pork barrel" tend overlap but are not the same.

However, both are associated with lack of transparency and government waste. Earmarks were formally banned by Congress in 2010. (Read more about them here.)

Remember those silly "Scary Movie" parodies that keep popping up every 3.5 years? Well earmarks are pretty similar. They keep coming back, except they're actually scary to open government advocates.

The characters in this case:

-- Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN), who often has championed cutting federal spending and cutting the budget deficit.

-- Honeywell's microelectronics production plant, which happens to be in Paulsen's district and whose employees have been a source of at least $50,000 in recent campaign donations to the congressman.

-- A 176-page Department of Defenseappropriations bill governing next year's Pentagon spending, where Paulsen's small but politically significant amendment found a home. The bill with Paulsen's amendment passed in the House in June, under Speaker Paul Ryan's leadership.

Is it really an earmark or just business as usual?

Earmarks are currently banned by Congress, but other less-obvious ways of slipping special project spending into legislation have been created. Trying to accurately spot an earmark now has become something of a dark art -- like looking for a well-camouflaged chameleon in its natural habitat.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, has been on the lookout for hidden earmarks for decades now. He says all signs indicate that Paulsen's bill is an earmark, plain and simple.

"When he added $25 million to the Defense Production Act portion of this spending bill, Mr. Paulsen clearly wanted it to go to Strategic Radiation Hardened Microelectronics Trusted Foundry Sustainment (as it states in his amendment) -- and when you look that up, the people who have a "Trusted Foundry" in "Strategic Radiation Hardened Microelectronics," it is Honeywell, which is in his district," Ellis said.

"Clearly that was his intent, to benefit a company in his own district."

However, other experts, like Justin Johnson, a senior defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, question whether Paulsen's amendment is an earmark.

"Congress has the power of the purse. It's in the Constitution,they get to decide where money is spent," Johnson said in an interview with Circa.

"Just because Congress is moving money doesn't make it wasteful or an earmark," he said. "It's a congressional adjustment, and congressional adjustments could include earmarks -- but I'm not sure that this one is, just based on the information I have at this point."

Neither Rep. Paulsen nor Honeywell would comment on this story. Speaker Ryan did not respond to a request for comment.

Why should you care? Future ramifications

If the Pentagon spending bill is signed into law (it has to pass in the Senate and be approved by the president first), Ellis says it sends a signal that lawmakers are once again filling a pork barrel they had promised to keep empty.

"You don't want to bite the hand that feeds you," Ellis said. "The Pentagon has had a one-third increase in the Defense Production portion of the act because of Mr. Paulsen's amendment, and he wanted that money to go to Honeywell."

"If they want to see similar increases in the future, they're probably going to reward him for getting that money."

If Ellis' predictions come true, this potentially means more tax dollars might be wasted. At the very least, it could be the start of a breakdown in the transparency of the process by which we allocate funds and resources within Congress -- a transparency thought by many to be the foundation of our representative democracy.

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