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Tom Feran
By Tom Feran July 20, 2011

Was Rep. Bill Johnson's funding request for airport improvements consistent with his anti-earmark stance?

Rep. Bill Johnson is one of the Republican budget hawks elected to Congress for the first time last fall. He denounced earmarks and promised to cut spending.

That put him on the radar of political reporter Sam Stein of Huffington Post, who recently made a Freedom of Information Act request for communications between first-term House members and federal agencies.

Stein said the correspondence he received "reveals that, in private, GOP lawmakers have pressed for tens of millions of dollars in federal help for their districts, even while decrying federal spending in front of the national press corps." Johnson is the second of 12 lawmakers named in Stein's story.

On March 8, he co-signed a letter from colleague Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Niles, asking the Department of Transportation for a grant to improve a runway at Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport at a cost of more than $4.3 million. The airport, just north of Youngstown, is in Ryan’s district but also serves Johnson’s, which includes some Youngstown suburbs.

Less than a month later, Stein noted, Johnson said on the House floor, "Our nation is broke. The federal government has maxed out its credit card."

To Stein, that raised the question "of whether it was inconsistent for a lawmaker who has repeatedly deplored government spending to privately request his own slice of the pie."

Stein’s piece caused a stir, getting attention on cable news programs. In light of that story, PolitiFact Ohio decided to check Johnson’s position on earmarks on the Flip-O-Meter. Is the request for specific spending consistent with his previously stated position?

The congressman’s press secretary, Jessica Towhey, bristled at the question, but stood by the statement she gave Stein:

"There’s a difference between smart federal spending and the reckless, irresponsible waste of tax dollars the American people are fed up with," she said. "Congressman Johnson joined with Rep. Tim Ryan in a bipartisan request to the FAA for safety improvements at a part of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport that the FAA has determined is not safe. This airport is a growing hub for travel and business in Northeast Ohio, and there is strong bipartisan support to ensure the safety of travelers and airport employees."

What's the difference between runway spending and runaway spending? What's the difference between "smart federal spending" and a "reckless, irresponsible waste of tax dollars" -- apart from Johnson's support? Those are policy questions for others to debate.

But what about Johnson’s position on earmarks?

While campaigning against Rep. Charlie Wilson for the 6th District seat last year, he declared himself opposed to all earmarks. He said he opposed "out-of-control spending" and wanted "to stop funding programs that are not working, like the National Endowment for the Arts and other pork and earmarks."

So is the request for runway funding consistent with the earmark position?

Earmarks are special requests from lawmakers that direct money to be spent in specific ways, usually to the benefit of a lawmaker's home district. They are often attached to a broad funding bill so that the only way to oppose them is to vote the bill down and stall the budgeting process. Critics have long argued that earmarks are likelier to serve special interests rather than the national good.

Republicans, including Johnson, approved rules that bar earmarks from legislation when they took control of the House this January.

But the airport request, while it does seek funding for a specific project, is not an earmark. It’s not a directed appropriation from Congress that targets a project. It’s not buried in a larger piece of legislation making it difficult to oppose. Rather, it’s a request to the administration asking it to support the project.

That’s a big difference. On the Flip-O-Meter, we find Johnson’s position on earmarks rates a No Flip.

Our Sources

Huffington Post, "Freshman Republicans Lobby Federal Agencies For Millions Amid Spending Critiques," July 5, 2011

Interview with Jessica Towhey, press secretary for Rep. Bill Johnson, July 15, 2011

Marietta Times, "6th District challengers try to unseat incumbent," Oct 9, 2010

Weirton Daily Times, "Facing off on issues," Oct. 22, 2010

Washington Post, Political Profiles, April 27, 2011

Youngstown Vindicator, "Ryan, Johnson plan teamwork on Valley affairs,"  Nov. 4, 2010

Youngstown Vindicator, "Ryan makes pitch for regional-airline service,"  Dec. 21, 2010

New York Times, "Lawmakers Find a Path Around an Earmarks Ban," March 16, 2011

PolitiFact Ohio, "Rep. Tim Ryan not shy about bringing home the bacon," Nov. 17, 2010

PolitiFact, "Does defense authorization bill contain earmarks? Maybe?," June 9, 2011

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More by Tom Feran

Was Rep. Bill Johnson's funding request for airport improvements consistent with his anti-earmark stance?

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