JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Rep. Todd Akin has backed almost $100 million in earmarks in recent years, including money for home-state military programs and local highway work. During his Republican Senate primary this summer, Akin even aired a television ad proudly defending his effort to get federal dollars for military armor in "what some call earmarks."
Now Akin has aligned himself with a group that wants to ban these earmarks, and the membership of the Senate Conservatives Fund has pledged $290,000 to help replenish the Republican's cash-strapped campaign against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Akin denies that it's a policy reversal and rejects any assertion of a quid pro quo for campaign cash. Five weeks to Election Day, the Republican is attempting to rebuild his campaign after his widely criticized statement that women have a biological defense against pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." McCaskill, who has been hammering Akin in television ads over that remark, now has a new line of criticism on federal spending.
McCaskill asserts that Akin's apparent evolution on earmarks undercuts the very essence of his campaign image as a "principled conservative" who stands firm for his beliefs.
"He defended (earmarks) as a constitutional principle, and then as soon as someone said there will be money for your campaign if you say you are no longer for earmarks, he said, 'OK,'" McCaskill, a vocal opponent of earmarks, told The Associated Press. Akin "tried to have it both ways, which is about as unprincipled as you can get."
Akin has remained competitive with McCaskill thanks largely to small-dollar donors and conservative Republicans who accepted his apology for the "legitimate rape" comment. They rallied to his cause when party leaders pulled their financial backing and tried to force him to quit the race. But Akin needs a steady stream of cash to continuing airing his campaign message through Election Day, and the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund marked his most significant financial commitment since the rape remark.
Akin insists there was no twisting or contorting to land the important endorsement of the formidable political action committee founded by conservative Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
"I can tell you what I'm for or what I'm against, and as it turned out, that's pretty consistent — or almost exactly consistent — with where a lot of the Senate conservatives are," Akin said.
Senate rules define an earmark — or a "congressionally directed spending item," as it's officially termed — as a provision included in a bill at the request of a lawmaker that directs money to a specific entity, state or congressional district without going through a formula-driven or competitive award process. Earmarks now are banned in the Republican-controlled House, Senate Republicans have voted not to use them and a number of Democrats oppose them, most notably McCaskill.
But from the 2008 to 2010 fiscal years, Akin was involved in securing $99 million in earmarks, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington that tracks earmarks. In 2010, the last year in which the House used earmarks in appropriations bills, Akin teamed up with former Sen. Kit Bond on a variety of spending requests.
Akin said he draws a distinction between spending allotments for such things as road projects that originate in a committee and work their way through the legislative process and special items that get added at the last moment in a joint House and Senate conference committee — leaving no time for most members to review them or attempt to strip them from the bill.
"Everybody's got different definitions" for earmarks, Akin added. "But my common sense is you don't want people doing quid for quo kinds of things, and I don't do that."
When defining an earmark, Taxpayers for Common Sense draws no distinctions regarding the purpose of a project or the point at which it was added in the legislative process.
Akin said he supports some limitations on the ability of lawmakers to direct money to pet projects — but only to a point.
"Don't take the definition so broadly that the members of Congress don't have any input into the budget process," he said.
McCaskill calls such assertions "complete balderdash," arguing that Congress can still exercise financial oversight without earmarks. Although McCaskill has teamed up with DeMint to push for a ban on earmarks, she also has voted for bills containing earmarks. McCaskill said she decided it was better to debate and vote upon those bills than to boycott them in protest of earmarks.