'Kentucky kickback': an issue for Mitch McConnell or just friendly fire?
The deal ending the government shutdown included an obscure, one-line change to an unrelated law that increased authorization for spending on a massive water project in Kentucky, the home state of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.
Here’s what’s known about the so-called “Kentucky kickback,” a controversy that blew up just as Senate leaders were signing off on a deal to end a government shutdown and avert default on the national debt.Skip to next paragraph
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While the Senate had held out for a "clean" bill to fund government in its standoff with the House, the deal that Senate leaders took to the floor on Wednesday included an obscure, one-line change to an unrelated law that increased authorization for spending on a massive water project in Kentucky, the home state of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.
It didn't spend $3 billion, as critics quickly charged. It authorized a new cap of $2.9 billion for a project that had already spent well beyond the $775 million level authorized by law. (More on that later.) Nor was it, technically, a banned spending "earmark." But it smelled bad. Conservative critics, who viewed the Senate deal as a sellout and Senator McConnell as the traitor, dubbed it the "Kentucky kickback." [Editor's note: In the original version, the number in this paragraph was incorrect.]
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Pork projects, or member earmarks on spending bills, were once common practice in Washington. After Republicans took back control of the House in 1995, pork projects soared – peaking at $29 billion in 2006, the year the GOP lost control of the House after scandals involving bribes for earmarks. In 2010, a new GOP majority banned the practice, and the Senate followed suit.
What makes earmarks toxic is the appearance of special favors for the powerful, drawn up in secret, and not vetted by any government agency or subject to competition from other projects.
But the Olmsted Locks and Dam project, spanning the Ohio River between Olmsted, Ill., and Paducah, Ky., is no "bridge to nowhere," the notorious Alaska earmark that launched the drive in 2005 to end earmarks. The dam replacement project aims to ease a bottleneck for barges about 17 miles upstream of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The Army Corps of Engineers calls the site "the busiest stretch of river in America's inland waterways."
When Congress first authorized the project in 1988, the estimate for completion was $775 million. By FY 2011, costs had soared to more than $1.4 billion, and the Army Corps says it will need authorization to spend up to $2.9 billion to finish the work. Despite delays and cost overruns, the project retained bipartisan support. The proposed increase was included in President Obama’s FY 2014 budget and authorized by both Senate and House committees.
It's not clear whether Senate leaders expected the blowback they're getting on this project. Accounts from aides, who will not be quoted publicly, differ on this point. What is clear is that Senate leaders, on both sides of the aisle, quickly rallied to its defense.
Both McConnell and Senate majority leader Harry Reid denied that the project was an earmark or that McConnell had requested it. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Water Development subcommittee, said in a statement that he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, who chairs the panel, had requested the project and that it would save taxpayer dollars.
“According to the Army Corps of Engineers, $160 million taxpayer dollars will be wasted because of canceled contracts if this language is not included,” Senator Alexander said, in a statement.