Washington » The four Republicans trying to unseat Sen. Bob Bennett are unified in their criticism of congressional earmarks, tying their proliferation to what they consider out-of-control government spending.
But Bennett, who secures more earmarks than any Utahn, isn't backing down. The Republican member of the appropriations committee says earmarks serve a vital role in funding worthy projects. Eliminating them, he contends, would only give an already too-powerful executive branch even more authority.
"I think what we have now seems to be working just fine," said Bennett, who is running for a fourth six-year term this year.
Earmarks are projects funded at the request of members of Congress that tend to benefit their state or district. In recent years, the politics surrounding these pet projects has intensified as the number of earmarks exploded from a few hundred to thousands, adding up to about $17 billion.
In particular, the issue has split the Republican Party. Some, such as Bennett, argue earmarking gives elected leaders a way to take care of state needs and is a legitimate part of Congress' power of the purse. Others, such as Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, complain that earmarks are largely funded in secret, are often wasteful and could lead to corruption.
Chaffetz is the only federal lawmaker from Utah who didn't request an earmark in 2009, a decision that didn't always please the mayors in his district who wanted a share of that federal cash. Chaffetz plans to keep his no-earmark policy in 2010 as well.
"We are too far in debt, I just can't justify it," he said.
Bennett's GOP challengers -- Tim Bridgewater, Cherilyn Eagar, Mike Lee and James Williams -- have largely followed Chaffetz's lead on this issue. They all support at least a one-year earmark moratorium leading to a revamping of the appropriations rules, though they differ on what changes need to be made.
Williams is the only challenger who said he would forgo all earmarks if elected. For every earmark Congress funds, he wants to see a corresponding budget cut elsewhere.
Lee said he wouldn't seek an earmark in his first year, even if Congress refused to approve a moratorium. He plans to create his own earmarking policy, similar to what Chaffetz did in his first year in office.
Lee also proposes a rule change allowing any senator to challenge an individual earmark, kicking in a requirement that the project have the support of 60 senators to remain in a budget bill.
"At a minimum, they ought to be subject to objection, debate and discussion," he said.
Bridgewater sees earmark restrictions as an "important substantive and symbolic step" toward a more fiscally responsible Washington. He dislikes the idea of federal lawmakers picking winners and losers among groups fighting for a limited pool of money.
Eagar is the only Senate candidate who has attacked Bennett directly on the issue, calling him "addicted to earmarks." She has said big spending bills loaded with thousands of pet projects "smacks of cronyism and corruption."
But she doesn't support an outright earmark ban. Instead, Eagar says she agrees with Chaffetz that private companies shouldn't be able to get an earmark and every project that is funded must show a legitimate federal tie-in.
Bennett said he explains his views to potential Republican delegates but he considers earmarks a side-show issue that distracts candidates, politicians and the public from the real fiscal challenges caused by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid spending.
"This is where the money is," he said. "This is where the spending has gone out of control."
Earmarks make up about 1 percent of the budget and he argues that eliminating them would do little to nothing to the bottom line.
Bennett said the biggest impact of a one-year moratorium would be a shift in power to the president's political appointees who would make more funding decisions than they do now.
"It is a matter of who gets to choose where the money is going to be spent, is it Congress or is it the president?" he asked. "If you think this administration is filled with people who never have a political thought when it comes to the distribution of money, you are naïve."
Three-term Republican Sen. Bob Bennett is a member of the powerful appropriations committee. He supported the requests of 48 companies and secured funding for half of them, equaling nearly $84 million. A dozen of the companies receiving an earmark donated to his campaign, while a dozen did not.
Sen. Bob Bennett received nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions last year linked to defense companies that sought his help obtaining congressionally directed earmarks -- more than any other member of Utah's congressional delegation, a Tribune review found.