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Democrat Debbie Stabenow helped secure $744.2 million in targeted spending for her home state of Michigan in the first three years of her current term in the U.S. Senate.
As Stabenow seeks a third term, such earmarks are no longer allowed, so like every senator seeking re-election she has had to get creative about finding alternative ways to convince voters that she is working for them.
Stabenow, chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, is using the $969 billion measure she wrote to set U.S. farm and food policy for the next five years in part as a campaign vehicle. She persuaded Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to let her bring up the legislation early so she could tout its expanded assistance to farmers -- including Michigan fruit growers, who have suffered crippling crop losses this spring.
“The absence of earmarks as a kind of beacon to voters that their interests are being looked after is a real problem,” said Ross Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “You kind of need a flag to plant to demonstrate to your constituents that you’re on the job and that your activities are supportive of their interests.”
Congress eliminated earmarks two years ago following an outcry that lawmakers’ focus on money for pet projects was contributing to the growing U.S. budget deficit and debt. The rules changed, though the imperative to show results for local interests hasn’t.
Cullen Schwarz, a spokesman for Stabenow, said in an e-mail that the farm bill “helps farmers and business owners in all 50 states continue to create agriculture jobs” and said its timing was not politically motivated.
“With the current farm bill expiring in September, it is Senator Stabenow’s job as Chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee to help pass a new farm bill before the deadline,” Schwarz said.
Banning earmarks was more symbolic than substantive: In a given year, they typically amounted to no more than 1 percent of the federal budget, according the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Washington-based bipartisan policy research group.
Still, Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has given members of his party in competitive races this year opportunities to use the Senate floor to champion causes that may resonate with voters in their states. The strategy is designed to help ensure that Senate Democrats, who are defending 23 seats in November compared with 10 for Republicans, don’t appear out of touch with constituents’ needs, particularly in a post-earmark environment.
Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, who is seeking a third term, sponsored an amendment to extend the Export-Import Bank’s charter. The Boeing Co. (BA), which has two major production facilities in Washington state, pressed hard for the measure, a version of which the Senate sent to President Barack Obama in May, days before the bank’s authority to provide loan support for exports, such as Boeing aircraft, was to expire.
“The Export-Import Bank is a crucial tool to support job creation and manufacturing in Washington state and around the country,” Cantwell spokesman Jared Leopold said in an e-mail.
West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, seeking his first full term in a Republican-leaning state, sponsored an amendment that would extend a moratorium on closing postal facilities, including a mail processing center in Bluefield, West Virginia.
“Joe Manchin always has and always will fight for the people of West Virginia,” the senator’s spokeswoman, Emily Bittner, said in an e-mail.
Reid also has tapped Democrats seeking re-election to take to the Senate floor to promote legislation designed to advance the party’s populist message.
Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey, running for a second term, was the lead sponsor of the Democrats’ proposal to extend a payroll tax cut through the end of the year. On March 29, Republicans blocked New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez’s measure to rescind or limit tax credits for large oil companies, including Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM), Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA), BP Plc (BP/), Chevron Corp. (CVX) and ConocoPhillips. Menendez, who was chairman of Senate Democrats’ campaign efforts in 2010, is seeking a second term.
Reid is “mindful” of the Democrats “he’s got to protect” to keep his majority, Baker said. Those who are up for re-election “will continue to get opportunities to showcase their activities by introducing bills and amendments,” he added.
Although they don’t control the Senate’s agenda, Republicans there have been seizing on chances to highlight legislation championed by vulnerable senators.
Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts stood next to Obama in April when the president signed a bill he co-sponsored that would let small businesses seek early capital investors on the Internet. Brown is in a competitive race against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard University professor and architect of Obama’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Polls show Obama leading former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the state.
Also, polls show Stabenow with a solid lead over her two most probable Republican challengers, former Representative Pete Hoekstra and Clark Durant, co-founder of a group of Detroit charter schools. Still, Senate passage of the farm bill could help inoculate her against criticism that she isn’t doing enough to help the state’s farmers.
“You can bet when this agriculture bill is done, she will probably be on every radio station in the state,” said John Truscott, who was an aide to former Michigan Governor John Engler, a Republican.
Abnormally warm temperatures in mid-March followed by a freeze ravaged Michigan’s fruit crops. A Michigan State University study estimated that the erratic weather resulted in a $209.8 million crop loss and wiped out about 90 percent of the state’s tart cherry, peach, apple and grape production for the year.
Michigan typically produces three-fourths of the nation’s tart cherries. The cherries and other fruit crops damaged in Michigan would have more protections under the expanded insurance system in the farm bill.
“I really wish we had the current bill in place” before the crop disaster, Stabenow told reporters earlier this month.
The current law authorizing farm programs expires Sept. 30.
Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the Republican leadership, said “political ramifications” of the farm bill probably caused the chamber’s Democratic leaders to bring it up this spring.
“They’re clearly being somewhat politically strategic in how they are scheduling the floor,” Thune said in an interview. “There’s no question about that.”
Reid’s spokesman, Adam Jentleson, confirmed that Stabenow pressed Reid to bring the farm bill to the floor.
“Just like any other senator who has an issue that’s important to them -- they do the same thing,” he said.
Stabenow’s $744.2 million in earmarks over three years were tallied by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group in Washington that opposes the practice.
Stabenow called agriculture the “bright spot” in Michigan’s economic recovery, adding that the legislation would provide needed certainty to farmers.
Ben LaCross, a northern Michigan grower of cherries, apples and plums, told reporters last week that his farm would be in “free fall” without federal assistance, adding that Stabenow’s measure would expand the tools available to help farmers cope with crop failures like the one this year.
“Crop insurance will help keep family businesses like mine in business,” LaCross said.
Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said in an interview that from a political standpoint, consideration of the farm bill allows Stabenow to emphasize benefits to Michigan that stem from having someone senior enough to head the Agriculture Committee in the Senate.
“There’s also obviously an effort to try to show her seniority and that she’s a little indispensable because she has the chairmanship, and that can be nothing but good for Michigan and Michigan farmers,” Duffy said.
The farm bill is S. 3240.
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