Senate to Vote to Investigate Young’s Coconut Road Earmark

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It’s a cause that has united lawmakers from right and left alike. How did Rep. Don Young (R-AK) manage to insert an earmark that benefited a campaign contributor after the bill had cleared both houses of Congress?

Where the two sides differ is in how that investigation should take place.

To review the circumstances of Young’s extra-Constitutional wizardry: Young, then the chairman of the House transportation committee, inserted a $10 million earmark to widen I-75 in Florida’s Collier and Lee Counties in the 2005 bill. The project was supported by local officials. That was the version passed by Congress. But because of Young’s unique position, he was able to make a crucial change: the bill later signed by the President had different language, directing the $10 million to an I-75 interchange at Coconut Road. That project had been opposed by local officials, but aggressively backed by real estate mogul Daniel Aronoff, who’d thrown a $40,000 fundraiser for Young that year.

Back in December, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) began pushing for an investigation of Young’s extra-Constitutional wizardry. And his preferred solution is an investigation by a joint committee of both House and Senate lawmakers with subpoena power.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), meanwhile, has offered an amendment that would direct the Justice Department to review the earmark and investigate whether Young’s extra-Constitutional earmark broke the law.

Both approaches are likely to come up for a vote on the Senate floor either tonight or tomorrow morning. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) favors Boxer’s approach. Why? Well, Jim Manley, his spokesman, called Coburn’s approach “blatantly unconstitutional” because it would involve one house investigating another house of Congress. You might call that ironic.

Coburn spokesman John Hart, meanwhile, said that Boxer’s amendment might lead to nothing, since Coburn didn’t believe that Congress had the power to “tell the Justice Department what to do.” But he stressed that Coburn was pleased that everyone agrees that Young’s earmark should be investigated.

It’s also worth mentioning that the FBI is already reportedly investigating the earmark as a possible bribe.

What is clear is that whatever solution emerges, it’s more likely to get results than the House ethics committee.

Back in September, the non-partisan watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense filed a complaint with the House ethics committtee about the change. But as expected, the infamously inert committee has done nothing.

And what does Don Young think about all this?His spokeswoman said yesterday that “Congressman Young has always supported and welcomed an open earmark process.”

It’s a markedly different response than reporters got in February. When a reporter tried to inquire about the change then, he responded in a raised voice, “I don’t know what changes you’re talking about, and I’m not going to discuss those changes.” When the reporter pressed, he got, “I have no idea, I have no idea” for an answer. When he continued to press, he got: “And that’s it. I’m not going to discuss it any more. If you have any other questions along those lines, you can just forget it.”

Last August, we plowed into the 800-page 2005 bill to see whether there had been any other substantial changes. We found that out of approximately 6,370 earmarks, Young’s had been the only to undergo such a change.