The three-story Opera House rises above neighboring storefronts on South Main Street here, a mecca of culture on the prairie. Not so long ago, arts enthusiasts in this south-central Kansas town worried about running out of money for its $8 million renovation.
But U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran, whose district includes McPherson, stepped in and secured a $142,500 earmark in the 2009 federal budget to help pay off a construction loan and put patrons in freshly upholstered, crimson-cushioned seats for shows as diverse as the Vienna Boys Choir and fiddler-comedian Doofus Doolittle.
A big win for the district and political bragging rights for Moran, right? Not quite.
Moran, locked in a bitter Aug. 3 primary fight for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination, is busy defending the earmark against rebukes from his opponent, fellow U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, that he is a fallen-away conservative who likes his share of government luxe.
And Moran, who raised the issue of wasteful spending to begin with, is ridiculing the inflatable tennis court dome in Wichita that Tiahrt subsidized with $430,000 in federal money.
In congressional campaigns across the country, one of the age-old tools for getting elected — bringing home the federal bacon for your district — has suddenly begun to backfire as government spending becomes a central issue in the midterm election.
Recent polls show the federal debt is second only to unemployment as a source of voter concern, on a par with terrorism.
Thus, Republican challengers are battering GOP incumbents who voted to bail out the banking industry even though the program helped protect local banks and businesses. Members of Congress are running away from the economic stimulus money that helped provide jobs in their districts. Two Republican incumbents, Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah and Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, already have been defeated in part for their spending votes.
But, in perhaps the most awkward twist of all, members are now defending themselves—and attacking each other—over the museums, research grants and other pet projects they finagled for their districts. Funding feats once announced with triumphant press releases must be explained away.
In conservative Kansas, where a vocal tea party movement is fanning outrage about government excess, both Republican House members seeking the Senate seat are fighting over their frugality. Republican Sen. Sam Brownback is retiring to seek the governorship, and the winner of the Aug 10 GOP primary is the odds-on favorite to capture the seat.
Earmarking "makes it a lot easier for the funding of wasteful projects," said Derrick Sontag, Kansas director of the Americans for Prosperity, one of the anti-tax, small-government groups active in the Republican races.
Since 1997, Tiahrt has been a member of the earmark-prone House Appropriations Committee. According to the Washington-based Citizens Against Government Waste, he sponsored or co-sponsored 135 earmarks in the 2008, 2009 and 2010 budgets worth more than $200 million.
The earmarks, which end-run the normal budget review process, provided contracts for Kansas aircraft manufacturers, technology upgrades at public schools and road and bridge projects. Only last year, Tiahrt issued a press release bragging about securing $4 million to buy a locally made Cessna for the Civil Air Patrol. In a 2004 news release, he proclaimed he was "solely responsible" for many earmarks benefiting Kansas.
Television ads by Moran have targeted that prowess: One running recently during World Cup matches on ESPN said Tiahrt had "gone Washington" and branded him "one of Washington's biggest spenders."
Tiahrt's campaign has primarily attacked Moran on tax issues, saying he could have done more to help make President Bush's tax cuts permanent, and accused him of being a hypocrite on earmarks. Of the tennis dome taunts, Tiahrt said, "That's quite a stretch" considering Moran's pork. Tiahrt has won some tea party support by stressing his otherwise strongly conservative record.
Moran, himself, sponsored or co-sponsored 64 earmarks worth nearly $77 million in the 2008-10 budgetsMoran said he had to do it because, with other states getting theirs, "You never want to unilaterally damage Kansans."
But the awkwardness doesn't end with the candidates. Residents of towns that received earmarks admit they both deplore government excess and appreciate their government gifts.
"We probably don't realize how much government funds," said Laurie Fischer, a Wichita resident who describes herself as a conservative Republican. Fischer said the year-round lessons her 15-year-old daughter, Mallory, can take on the Tiahrt-domed courts at Riverside Park allow her to play on the Goddard High School tennis team.
Likewise, John Holocek, executive director of the McPherson Opera House, which serves a community where two-thirds of the voters supported Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, said Moran's earmark provided "an incredible psychological boost when we needed it."
Once shuttered and deteriorated, the Opera House had a grand reopening in January, on the 121st anniversary of its debut.
"I think there are people who are putting earmarks on things for selfish reasons," said Sylvia Wolcott, chairman of the Central Christian College's fine arts department, after rolling through a lush version of "Beautiful Savior" on a grand piano in the hall. "This is an unselfish — glorious — reason."
Jerry Moran's campaign: http://www.moranforkansas.com/
Todd Tiahrt's campaign: http://www.toddtiahrt.com/
Citizens Against Government Waste: http://www.cagw.org/
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