A movement to restrict unregulated earmarks in the newest area of taxpayer spending for the federal government, homeland security, is gaining steam and cleared the Senate June 28. Legislation proposed in April by Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut authorizes nearly $1 billion in grants over the next five years for states to complete construction projects ostensibly designed to limit damage caused by disasters.

Known as hazard mitigation, the idea is to fortify unstable structures otherwise vulnerable to collapse in the event of a catastrophe and to perform additional work that protects populations from direct and indirect calamity, like, say, floods caused by levees that give way during a hurricane. Funds allocated for the program are managed by FEMA.

But the annual homeland security appropriations bill, now an entrenched part of the spending process in Washington, has in recent years been stuffed with congressionally directed expenditures, i.e. earmarks, that lawmakers set aside to benefit constituents. Those earmarks have included millions in cash for hazard mitigation projects that some critics complained had little to do with homeland security, if anything.

Last year an annoyed Sen. John McCain of Arizona, well known for his contempt of earmarks, zeroed in on nearly 200 of them totaling $269 million contained in the homeland security appropriations bill for the 2010 fiscal year. Speaking from the Senate floor, McCain pointed to several he considered questionable, including $250,000 to retrofit a senior center in Utah sought by that state’s congressional delegation.

“The last time I checked, senior centers are important but they have very little relation to homeland security,” McCain said at the time. He singled out another $3.6 million for a Coast Guard operations center in the landlocked state of West Virginia, $200,000 for a college radio station in Ohio and $900,000 for an emergency operations facility in one Montana town with fewer than 6,000 residents. (Quick note: During the debate, McCain incorrectly attributed a $4 million earmark to the state of Wisconsin when records actually show the funds were designated for a bridge in Iowa.)

Not all members of Congress regard earmarks as unsavory. Defenders, like Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, argue that Americans living outside of the Washington power structure know more about what’s needed for their communities than federal bureaucrats and they’re the ones who request earmarks from elected representatives to satisfy those needs. In fact, policymakers packed last year’s homeland security spending bill with $60 million in earmarks for emergency operations centers spread across dozens of cities in the United States.

Local authorities have pushed for federal financing to build EOCs arguing that emergency personnel rely on them to coordinate response and recovery efforts during major catastrophes. The powerful chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Democrat Bennie Thompson, squirreled away $750,000 for a town called Port Gibson in his home state of Mississippi to have such as center. Its population is about 2,000.

But McCain and long-time Democratic ally Russ Feingold of Wisconsin complained there was no competitive process for awarding the funds that took into account actual risks of disaster faced by local communities. Feingold went so far as to tell the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the Democratic Party was repeating mistakes made by Republicans when they held a majority in Congress during the Bush administration and declared that the “shamelessness of earmarking is getting out of control.”

The pair sought an amendment last year to fix what they considered to be a growing problem in homeland security spending. It was voted down by their colleagues, however. Lieberman’s Senate Bill 3249 amounts to a second attempt thanks to an amendment sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), also a frequent antagonist of congressionally directed spending items. It would specifically prohibit hazard mitigation money from being used as earmarks. In an April statement noting the amendment’s survival, Coburn called the mitigation program “a slush fund for earmarks”:

I’m pleased my colleagues agreed taxpayer dollars should be spent to prevent disasters instead of financing special-interest pork projects. This amendment will help protect taxpayers’ lives and wallets. In Congress, true change tends to happen in small steps rather than great leaps. This legislative earmark ban is a small step, but it crosses a rubicon. Never before has Congress accepted a legislative earmark ban as broad as this one.

A review from the Congressional Budget Office points out nonetheless that under Lieberman’s bill, grants for hazard mitigation in 2011 would nearly double over the previous year to $180 million and the cash would essentially remain at that level for each of the next five years with a high of $200 million. His legislation would also ensure that states are annually awarded at the very least $575,000 or one percent of the total amount appropriated for the program by Washington.

GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona blasts earmarks during a debate over homeland security spending on Oct. 20, 2009. Video courtesy of C-SPAN.

Stock.xchng image by Billy Alexander (ba1969)

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.