Earmark Drama on Coconut Road

The most contentious debate yesterday on the Highway Corrections Bill (H.R. 1195) took place on an amendment offered by Senator Coburn (R-OK) that would launch a Congressional investigation of an earmark to the 2005 Transportation Bill.

The earmark was supposed to provide some $10 million for lane widening and other renovations to Interstate 75 in Florida. It was included in the House bill, the Senate bill and then finally in the conference report which was passed by both bodies. The controversy begins after the final bill had been passed but before it had been signed by the President. Somewhere in between that time-frame, the earmark was completely changed to provide the same amount of funding for a specific interchange along Coconut Road in Florida.

Who was responsible for this change? That answer could come as a result of Senator Coburn’s amendment. The Hill reports on what outside groups believe took place:

Watchdog groups, including Taxpayers for Common Sense, have accused Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who was chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee when the Coconut Road earmark was changed, or his staff of making the change.

Young’s critics argue the change was made to benefit Daniel Aronoff, who owns land along Coconut Road and helped organize a fundraiser for Young earlier that year.

Senator Coburn wants to create a bipartisan and bicameral panel consisting of 8 members which would be charged with investigating the situation, making any necessary recommendations on how to prevent this action in the future and possibly referring the issue to the Department of Justice should they suspect criminal activity was involved. The panel would be divided as follows: 2 members appointed by the House Speaker, 2 members appointed by the House Minority Leader, 2 members appointed by the Senate Majority Leader and 2 members appointed by the Senate Minority Leader.

Senator Boxer (D-CA) has an alternative idea. She is in favor of the investigation, even suggesting yesterday that people should go to jail for any criminal wrongdoing relating to the earmark switch-a-roo. However, she wants to insert language in the Highway Corrections Bill to call on the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into the matter instead of Congress. Senator Boxer believes this will remove any politics from the situation while also avoiding a cloudy constitutional area where the Senate is essentially investigating the House. Senator Coburn disagrees with this approach and believes that it sets a bad precedent in the future by stripping Congress of the power to investigate itself.

Senator Boxer’s viewpoint may win out at the end of the day, possibly for the sake of keeping the bill’s delicate bicameral support intact. With that being said, Senator Coburn does have some bipartisan support for his approach including strong support from both Florida Senators.

Update: Read our post here on the voting results for these two amendments.

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