WASHINGTON — A Democratic senator accused lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee — including Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh — of loading up an annual defense bill with pork-barrel projects despite a congressional ban on home-state "earmarks."
Mr. Owens was one of many lawmakers on the committee, including Democrats and Republicans, who directed funds toward home district priorities in a way that worked around the earmarks ban. His items included construction at Fort Drum and $500,000 intended for the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., criticized the practice in a report Monday, accusing the House Republican majority of going back on its pledge to end what some consider a wasteful or abusive means of spending.
"This kind of end-around on the earmark ban by House Republicans is the exact kind of thing that has won Congress a public approval rating below 10 percent," Ms. McCaskill said in a news release. "Americans want to believe in their leaders, but when their leaders put in place an earmark ban and then immediately create a system to get around it so they can have their political pet spending projects, there can be no confidence."
Ms. McCaskill released her report, which she said resulted from a six-month study by her office, as the House and Senate Armed Services committees prepared to release a final version of the defense bill that could strip some of the House provisions.
In most cases, the projects and programs Ms. McCaskill identified don't specifically mention a site. The FDRHPO funds, for instance, are described as benefitting military-community health partnerships, of which the FDRHPO is the obvious intended recipient but which could be sought by other organizations that meet the description.
The items Mr. Owens sponsored, in addition to the funds intended for the FDRHPO, included $10 million for utility and ground improvements intended for Fort Drum; $4 million for educational programs supporting the defense cyber workforce, a description that matches research at Clarkson University; and $2.5 million for modification of weapons and combat vehicles, which matches work done at Remington Arms Co., which has a plant in Utica.
Mr. Owens sponsored the latter item with Rep. Richard L. Hanna, R-Barneveld.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Owens said he had not read the report but defended his actions and said he could "only say good things" about congressional support for the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization, the partnership between the post and area hospitals designed to provide coordinated care to soldiers and their families. Fort Drum is the biggest Army installation without its own hospital.
"We followed the rules set down by the Republican chairman of the committee," Mr. Owens said, referring to Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon. R-Calif.
The committee funded the projects by creating a separate account in the bill and cutting spending elsewhere. The bill would have spent the same amount of money without the projects, Mr. Owens said.
Ms. McCaskill's report identified 115 projects in the House version of the bill, totaling $834 million, that her staff identified as earmarks. In many cases, items matched projects that members requested in past years before the earmark ban took effect.