Port at center of earmark storm

Defying DeMint

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Riding a nationwide wave of support, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is seen by many fiscal and social conservatives as the next GOP Senate leader and/or a dark horse candidate in the Republicans' 2012 presidential race.

So, it's unusual that he had to spend some time in the Lowcounty last week to defend those principles from charges that it will doom economic development in Charleston and across the state.

Legislators routinely dedicate money for particular projects back home through a host of bills funding various federal programs. These are called earmarks, and they account for a small percentage of the money spent in Washington — $17 billion of $2.9 trillion in 2009. It's a lot of money, but nothing compared to spending on military, Social Security, and Medicare, which each account for roughly a fifth of all spending. Instead of focusing on those big fish, DeMint and others have used earmarks as a bogeyman. For years, he has refused to seek this type of money for South Carolina, charging that the system enables wasteful spending like Alaska's infamous Bridge to Nowhere.

DeMint's game plan is like playing Monopoly, and nobody wants his Mediterranean Avenue card. So he just sits at the table and talks about how disgusting the game is, hoping that everyone will get tired of listening to him and quit playing.

Of course, the analogy fails because we're not talking about a board game. We're talking about billions in tax dollars spent everywhere else but South Carolina because DeMint, unable to work with fellow legislators to fix the system, just calls it broken and sits there pouting.

The S.C. State Ports Authority is in desperate need for $400,000 to study deepening the Charleston Harbor. New shipping opportunities have East Coast ports clamoring for federal dollars. Sen. Lindsey Graham recently started ringing the alarm that every other state has made it to the trough but South Carolina.

The problem appears to be that most states play ball in the U.S. Senate in teams of two, and South Carolina has been trying to wrangle federal funding with one player in the game.

Ironically, deepening the Charleston Harbor is a no-brainer. It's already one of the East Coast's best positioned ports and, at roughly $250 million, the total cost to deepen the shipping channel would cost less than projects in other states. Graham's concern is that South Carolina will have to bear that cost without federal support, unlike everyone else.

In Charleston last week, DeMint placed the blame on other members of Congress. "My not asking for an earmark had nothing to do with us not getting it," he told The Post and Courier. "They're just playing politics."

But S.C. State Ports Authority Board Chairman Bill Stern told The Post and Courier that it seemed to be a "lack of unity" in the S.C. delegation that was keeping Charleston off the list. And when Graham and Congressman Henry Brown pleaded publicly for help on this issue, they were speaking in Charleston to DeMint's constituents.

The stakes are even higher in the current election cycle. It's likely that Republican Tim Scott, a fellow anti-earmarker, will be joining DeMint in Washington next year. Meanwhile, GOP gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley has been a strong opponent of federal aid. After harsh words from Democrat Vincent Sheheen, Haley came out last week to say she'll do "whatever it takes" to support the port.

Of course, DeMint is unphased by this dose of reality. In typical fashion, he says he'll stymie the entire funding bill if it doesn't include the money for the Charleston Harbor — a request he'll support in Charleston but one he refuses to put his weight behind in Washington.

Charleston is the only East Coast port snubbed in the latest Senate appropriations bill, so either everyone in Congress is playing the system really well, or it doesn't take that much effort to find this money as long as you're willing to play the game.

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