Jennifer Loren, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- You may not realize it, but the Interstate 44 widening project in Tulsa is an earmark project. The Interstate 40 Crosstown project through Oklahoma City is also an earmark project. But then, so is the infamous bridge to nowhere in Alaska and hundreds of thousands of dollars to research wool.
On February 1, 2011, Congress agreed on a bipartisan ban on all earmarks. Oklahoma's two conservative senators are on the front lines of that battle, but they stand on opposite sides.
Senator Dr. Tom Coburn is affectionately known on Capitol Hill as "Doctor No." When it comes to congressional earmarks, Senator Coburn has been saying no since the very beginning. He's never spent a single earmarked dollar and, in fact, has led the charge to ban them.
"What we do is we take money from you, excess money from you as a private citizen, and we say where that money's going to go...for things that are not a priority of the federal government," said Coburn.
In a 2009 town hall meeting in rural Oklahoma, Senator Jim Inhofe argued, "There's nothing wrong with earmarks if you define them what they are."
Senator Inhofe is leading a much different charge. He said not all earmarks are bad nor should they be considered pork-barrel spending. But still, Inhofe was recently named "porker of the month" by the government watchdog group, Citizens Against Government Waste. According to that group, Senator Inhofe got $86 million worth of funding pushed through Congress in 2010 in what most call earmarks.
But Inhofe argued they are not earmarks. He said we should simply call them appropriations. He said it's his constitutional duty to spend tax dollars on projects he believes are important.
"Article 1, section 9 of the Constitution says that the legislative body is supposed to do all of the spending," Inhofe said in a satellite interview with the Oklahoma Impact Team. "All the President does is propose, then the legislature has to spend it. We are giving up our constitutional duty and therefore violating our oath of office."
Senator Inhofe said the ban on earmarks takes away his and Congress's voice in the budget process, and takes money away from legitimate projects like Oklahoma's I-44 and I-40 projects. Plus, he said the ban won't save Americans a dime because the money will still be spent by President Obama and his appointees.
Senator Coburn said that is not true.
"There's nothing in the law that says they have to spend all that money," Coburn said. "They don't have to appropriate it all. Matter of fact, they shouldn't be appropriating it all and that's my whole point."
Senator Coburn said the money will not be spent if Congress does their job, which is not to spend more money, but to watch where it goes and stop it if necessary.
"The answer is to oversight every penny that ever goes out of the public treasury to see if it's being spent on high priority items rather than low priority," Coburn said.
He said this of the disagreement between himself and Senator Inhofe, "We just have agreed to disagree on that subject. He sees it as a role."
Inhofe does not believe he and Coburn are on opposite sides of the debate. He believes the simple solution is to rewrite the definition of earmarks, distinguishing them from regular appropriations. He thinks the recent ban on congressional earmarks will give President Barack Obama too much power to make his own presidential earmarks.
"I think this will serve as a wake up call to the American people," said Inhofe. "When they realize that all of the spending is going to come out of the executive branch, they're going to say 'How did we get into this mess?'"
Right now, earmarks are defined similarly in the House and Senate. However, critics say there is enough disparity between the two to cause confusion. Many watchdog groups have made their own definitions and compiled their lists of earmarks accordingly.
The Oklahoma Impact Team compiled two lists of earmarks set aside by Oklahoma's congressional delegation: