WASHINGTON – Oh, for a
honeymoon that had lasted two weeks.
Brian Bilbray got no such break. Sworn in to Congress just
seven days before, the newly elected lawmaker on Tuesday found
himself going head to head with budget-cutting conservatives who
questioned his support for congressional “earmarks” and his vote
for a congressional pay raise.
The conflict – played out for San Diegans last week on local
radio – demonstrated that Bilbray may have to walk a political
tightrope as he faces a November election for a full two-year
“I find it interesting that conservatives are already
critiquing Bilbray negatively,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a
University of Southern California political scientist. “I think
what they're doing is sending Bilbray a message: Shape up or ship
Bilbray, 55, recently elected to finish the term of imprisoned
former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, was sworn in June 13. The
next day, the Carlsbad Republican joined a majority of House
members in voting against an attempt to remove earmarks from a
large spending bill, including some for the San Diego area.
The long-standing practice of earmarking has been under
scrutiny since its abuse led to an eight-year prison term for
Cunningham, who admitted taking bribes from defense contractors.
Earmarks also played a role in the investigation that led to a
guilty plea from lobbyist Jack Abramoff for influence peddling and
investigations into other Republican lawmakers.
Earmarks are money for pet projects that congressional members
slip into bills, often without public scrutiny or hearings.
The same day as the vote on earmarks, Bilbray joined 248 other
House members who rejected an attempt to force a vote on the
$3,300 cost-of-living adjustment that will raise congressional pay
Jan. 1 to $168,500. Congressional pay raises happen automatically
each year, unless House members vote to block the increases.
Andrew Roth, governmental affairs director for the conservative
Club for Growth, took aim at those votes on Roger Hedgecock's
“How many congressmen need to be put into jail, investigated or
indicted for this earmarking process?” said Roth, whose
seven-year-old organization represents 35,000 members who want
Washington to cut federal spending.
Bilbray retorted: “I wouldn't impugn your reputation. You've
got items in (the earmarks) I definitely didn't like, but you also
had items I did like.”
Roth, in a subsequent interview, said Bilbray's support for the
earmarks was objectionable “because during his campaign he said he
was against hidden earmarks, then days after he's elected, he
voted for a bill with over 1,500 earmarks, most of which were
During his campaign for Cunningham's seat against Democrat
Francine Busby, Bilbray said he supported earmarks as long as they
weren't negotiated behind closed doors. He proposed a ban on such
While Roth said that Bilbray abandoned that campaign stand with
last week's vote, the congressman said he objected to earmarks
that lawmakers tuck into bills during conference negotiations –
the process during which lawmakers iron out differences between
the House and Senate versions of a spending bill.
A conference report rarely goes through a congressional
committee hearing or a public airing. Appropriations bills – such
as the one Bilbray voted on last week – get more public scrutiny.
Among the earmarked items in the
Transportation-Treasury-Housing and Urban Development
appropriations bill that Bilbray voted on were $500,000 for a
college athletic facility in Yucaipa and $1.5 million to build a
William Faulkner museum in Oxford, Miss.
“I said I was going to fight to change the system,” said
Bilbray, noting that voting to remove the earmarks also would have
cost San Diego money for key highway projects. “But you still have
the responsibility to provide some kind of budget to the president
to sign into law. It's a judgment call. It's always a judgment
On May 3, the House passed a Republican ethics reform plan
requiring members to put their names on earmarks. A tougher
Democratic plan would have banned lobbyists from paying for
lawmakers' trips, meals and gifts, but it failed. Bilbray called
the GOP plan a “step in the right direction” during his campaign
and has said he and his staff won't take gifts from lobbyists.
The 50th Congressional District that Bilbray will represent for
the next six months, and for which he will compete again in
November's election, is far more conservative than the more urban
district he represented from 1995-2001. During his recent
campaign, Bilbray sided with conservatives in calling for tighter
border controls, and many believe his election victory hinged on
But Bilbray is far from a conservative's dream, and the right
wing of his party seems determined to drum that into voters'
In the past, Bilbray has supported a ban on assault weapons and
has said he doesn't believe in overturning the Supreme Court's Roe
v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Last week's
confrontation between Bilbray and the Club for Growth raised
questions about whether continued conservative attacks on the new
congressman might hurt the Republican Party in the fall election
by persuading right-wing voters to stay away from the polls.
That dynamic appeared to hurt Bilbray in the April 11 special
election, when he competed against other Republicans, but perhaps
not so much against Democrat Busby in the June 6 runoff.
While many observers believe Bilbray will do well in November
in a rematch against Busby, political observer Jack Pitney said
Bilbray's “advantage isn't so enormous that he can take the seat
“There's still a chance there could be a big downdraft in
November,” said Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont
McKenna College. “Bush's popularity plummets, more bad things
happen in Iraq, the economy goes south – the possibilities are
News Service intern Rebecca Go contributed to this report.