HELENA - U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg is swearing off earmarks for at least one year in a symbolic stance against federal spending - leaving it to the state's Democratic senators to secure the politically volatile congressional spending for Montana.
Rehberg - who says he has no idea how much money in earmarks he has secured last year or any other time over his career - is taking part in a unilateral moratorium by House Republicans. The move, sure to please the conservative base, is part of a larger effort to criticize federal spending under Democrats.
One list of congressional earmarks for this year shows the delegation tallied a total of $189 million in earmarks for the state. Most of the earmarks are requested by more than one member of the delegation, and sometimes all three.
U.S. Sen. Tester's office said the senator's name was attached to $167 million of it in the 2010 federal fiscal year. U.S. Sen. Baucus' office said the senior Democrat was at least one of the requesters on about $130 million of it.
Rehberg's office said it did not have a count. But OpenSecrets.org shows that for the prior year, Rehberg's name was attached to about $51 million in earmarks.
Some of the earmarks attributed to Rehberg, though, include such projects as $500,000 so the city of Great Falls could buy equipment and $179,000 to develop conservation practices in the Yellowstone River Valley.
Rehberg argues that all of the earmarks he has argued for in the past went to worthy projects. At the same time, however, he said there will be no damage by not seeking any for a year.
Since earmarks don't increase federal spending, but rather specify how the executive branch will spend money already allocated to it, Rehberg's move won't lower spending or decrease the deficit. But he said it is important to send a message about overall spending.
"I don't need to make the argument to Montanans that we are in trouble here. We have a ballooning deficit and a ballooning budget," Rehberg said. "We have a debt that is just crushing us."
Rehberg said that he waited until now - despite years of prior deficit spending by Congress - because a point needs to be made about spending. Earmarks direct about one-half of one percent of all federal spending.
Rehberg is not the first among the congressional delegation to switch positions on earmarks, nor the first time they have been a hot-button political issue.
Several years ago Tester, then a Democratic candidate running against former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, said he was against earmarks "period." The campaign was making a lot of political traction blasting Burns for the spending, which Burns argued was important for Montana.
Shortly later, Tester said he really meant to say he was for them - with certain conditions. Now that Democrats have banned anonymous earmarks Tester argues - like Burns before him - that the money is important to Montana projects.
"You can point a finger at both parties if you're looking for someone to blame about America's debt problem," Tester said. "But saying 'no' to transparent, responsible earmarks doesn't do any of these things."
Tester and Baucus both said they will look for ways to reduce the deficit, but will also make sure Montana projects get funding.
Montana has ranked among the top states, on a per capita basis, for federal earmark spending, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Hundreds of Montana groups, local government and others request earmarks. Last year alone, Rehberg listed on his Web site more than 300 such requests. A small portion end up getting funded.
Rehberg, like Tester before him, argues he could be for earmarks again - with certain conditions. And he did not rule out earmarks next year.
Rehberg said that he appreciated a move by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, to start looking at ways to cut the state budget up to five percent. He said President Barack Obama needs to do the same.
"Even our governor gets it. It is not political because I am giving him kudos for the right thing here," Rehberg said.
Rehberg said he wants earmark reform that increases, in some way, accountability and restores the confidence of the public in the process. He said constituents are still very upset with earmarks.
Even small, largely symbolic, measures of fiscal discipline will help.
"The point is to make the point," Rehberg said.