Democrat Debbie Stabenow helped secure $744.2 million in earmarks for her home state of Michigan at the start of her second term in the Senate. But doling out pork is no longer allowed, so in Stabenow’s current reelection campaign she’s had to find other ways to look out for her constituents. The lawmaker included expanded crop assistance programs in the $969 billion farm bill she wrote as chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee and persuaded Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–Nev.) to let her open debate on the legislation early, some four months before the current one expires.
Sponsoring a big bill can afford the same kind of bragging rights that lawmakers used to score for piggybacking their pet spending projects on someone else’s work. For Stabenow, the timing was also brilliant, given the crippling crop losses Michigan farmers suffered this spring because of extreme weather.
Two years after federal lawmakers banned earmarks amid an outcry that they were bloating the country’s deficit, Democrats up for reelection are getting creative when it comes to convincing voters they’ve got their backs. Enter Reid, who’s trying to defend 23 seats by doling out plum sponsorships and other opportunities for members in competitive races. He tapped Senator Bob Casey as the lead sponsor of the successful 2012 payroll tax cut extension, a measure popular with middle-class workers in Pennsylvania, a presidential battleground. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell got to take credit for sponsoring an amendment to extend the Export-Import Bank’s charter, a measure backed by Boeing, which builds airplanes in her state that are supported by Ex-Im loans. Reid also cleared the way for a vote on West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s amendment to extend a moratorium on closing post offices, including one in Manchin’s Republican-leaning state.
“They’re clearly being somewhat politically strategic in how they are scheduling the floor,” says South Dakota Senator John Thune, a member of the Republican leadership. “There’s no question about that.” Reid’s spokesman, Adam Jentleson, doesn’t take that as a compliment: “I think it’s a little silly to pick these out and say they’re different from other bills just by virtue of the fact that 2012ers are involved.” It’s standard practice for any senator “who has an issue that’s important to them” to enlist Reid’s help in getting attention, Jentleson says.
In Michigan, abnormally warm temperatures in mid-March were followed by a freeze that ravaged the state’s fruits, wiping out an estimated 90 percent of its cherries, peaches, and other crops. They would have more protection under the expanded insurance program in Stabenow’s proposed farm bill, which was to come up for a vote by June 22. The senator’s spokesman, Cullen Schwarz, stresses that the measure “helps farmers and business owners in all 50 states continue to create agriculture jobs.” That message is likely to come through loud and clear, says John Truscott, an aide to Michigan’s former Republican governor, John Engler. “You can bet when this agriculture bill is done, she will probably be on every radio station in the state.”