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Arkansas lawmakers discuss accomplishments, criticisms of $1.7 trillion measure

by Alex Thomas | December 25, 2022 at 3:28 a.m.
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, shown during an event in Rogers on Nov. 11, 2019, says he is ready for the criticism after voting to approve a $1.7 trillion spending measure. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)


WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Steve Womack is ready for the criticism.

Womack, R-Ark., was among the nine Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted Friday for a $1.7 trillion spending measure, joining Democrats in sending the measure to President Joe Biden's desk. Womack's vote followed the actions of Sens. John Boozman, R-Rogers, and Tom Cotton, R-Little Rock, who were among 18 Republicans senators who supported the legislation Thursday.

"I'm ready to take the arrows. Sometimes, this can be a very unpopular job," Womack, of Rogers, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "At the end of the day, here at the Christmas season, I didn't think that shutting the government down or pursuing a yearlong continuing resolution was in the best interest of anybody."

The Senate passed the omnibus bill in a 68-29 vote, while the House voted 225-201. Arkansas Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill and Bruce Westerman joined a majority of their Republican colleagues in opposing he bill.

Both congressional votes came in the final days of the current Congress as lawmakers rushed to pass a spending measure to avoid a government shutdown. Some Republicans pushed for Congress to pass a short-term continuing resolution going into the new Congress when Republicans will control the House of Representatives. A continuing resolution would have only maintained spending at current levels.

"The potential for a yearlong continuing resolution would be a disaster for the nation's national security, and failure to pass the omnibus package would have to involve an additional continuing resolution," Womack said.

The bill dedicates $858 billion for defense and $772.5 billion for nondefense domestic programs. The legislation was a combination of 12 appropriations bills and several other measures not yet passed by the legislative body.

Included in the defense spending is $28 million for the relocation of the F-35 foreign military training program to Fort Smith and an $8 million boost for programs related to the Razorback Range training site. Additionally, money will go toward expanding the production capacity of munitions, including missiles produced at Highland Industrial Park in East Camden.

Boozman secured $1.8 million to upgrade the Pine Bluff Arsenal's access control points and $1 million for improving the Army site's sewage and sanitation system. Appropriators, at Boozman's request, also approved $9.5 million for modernizing the automated multipurpose machine-gun range at Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock.

ARKANSANS' REQUESTS

Boozman's projects are one of the 36 requests submitted by Arkansas' lawmakers. Boozman, Womack, Crawford and Westerman submitted project requests, commonly referred to as earmarks, and secured nearly $158 million for the state. Cotton and Hill did not make any requests.

The projects include $8 million for constructing a 330,000-square-foot health sciences building at Arkansas State University Three Rivers in Malvern, $12 million for water services in west Pulaski County, $6.4 million for constructing a portion of the future Interstate 57 corridor, and $13.4 million for projects at Northwest Arkansas National Airport.

"We're looking at government-to-government and making sure that these things benefit the greater public," Boozman said following the Senate vote. "Not individuals or little entities, but the greater public for the greater good."

Boozman noted that federal support is often the "little extra money" to ensure entities can complete projects.

"I can only speak for myself and what we're doing in Arkansas, but we work really hard to make sure these are very worthwhile projects," he said.

Twenty-five of Boozman's requests received approval, including two also requested by Womack. The lawmakers sought funding for constructing an access road at Northwest Arkansas National Airport and replacing the facility's temporary air traffic control tower.

Womack's other requests included $2.2 million for improving the Yellville sanitary sewer system and $4 million for resurfacing roads in Mulberry.

"I would challenge anybody to argue that it's pork," Womack said. "When you look at the city of Yellville and you see the difficulty they're having with their wastewater program, a couple of million dollars for their sewer project is absolutely a godsend to them."

Yellville will not be part of Womack's congressional district in the new year; Marion County will be part of the 1st Congressional District in the new Congress and represented by Crawford.

The current Congress brought back earmarks following an 11-year pause because of corruption concerns.

"I just believe there are insufficient guardrails for these so-called earmarks," Hill, R-Little Rock, said Friday afternoon. "Generally speaking, I just believe state and local leaders should advocate through their existing process, and that's just the best way to get around it for programs authorized by law."

Cotton opposes the Senate's congressionally directed spending process. In an interview with the Democrat-Gazette, he said the practice fostered excessive spending behaviors in past Congresses.

"Obviously, Arkansas got some good victories in here, like the funding for Ebbing Air National Guard and support for other infrastructure projects," he said.

The spending measure's legislative provisions include a ban of TikTok on government devices. The prohibition applies to instruments in the executive branch, although there would be exceptions in situations related to national security and law enforcement.

The move stems from concerns regarding TikTok, Chinese parent company ByteDance Ltd. and the Chinese government's ability to access user data. Multiple state governments, including Arkansas, have banned employees from using the app on state devices.

Cotton, who co-sponsored the original legislation, has described TikTok as a "Trojan horse" targeting privacy.

"I think it's a good first step, but ultimately, I think it's unwise that we allow TikTok -- a Chinese Communist-influenced and controlled media company -- to operate in America," he said. "We would have never allowed a Soviet Russian media company to operate in America like we do TikTok."

TikTok has stated the company stores data from American users in the United States and Singapore, and these centers are not subject to Chinese law. TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter described the language's inclusion in the spending measure as "a political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests."

She referenced a pending agreement with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States addressing data concerns.

"These plans have been developed under the oversight of our country's top national security agencies -- plans that we are well underway in implementing -- to further secure our platform in the United States, and we will continue to brief lawmakers on them," she said.

Cotton doesn't buy that argument.

"I wouldn't expect a company under the thumb of Chinese Communists to say anything else," he said.

Cotton additionally worked with New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez and Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan on delivering compensation to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. The House previously approved payments to 9/11 victims' families, but Cotton wanted lawmakers to include the families of 241 Americans who died in the 1983 attack.

"My goal was to treat all victims equitably, so I didn't want to leave any victims behind," he said.

AGRICULTURE, NUTRITION

Boozman worked with colleagues on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry to insert agriculture and nutrition language in the final measure. These provisions include $250 million in assistance for rice producers affected by rising fertilizer prices and a new program to assist farmers with voluntary carbon markets.

"Agriculture is such that it's 25% of our state's economy. You go outside of any town of any size, it's probably 85 or 90%," said Boozman, the committee's top Republican. "It's really important that we do a good job in helping in every way that we can."

The measure also changes the summer food program for children. Organizations will have flexibility for offering meal delivery services rather than having children eat meals at locations. Families will be eligible to receive $40 a month per child for purchasing groceries during the summer.

"What we have is a situation where during the school year, individuals that are in need of help in regard to free lunches, they're taken care of," Boozman said. "You come to the summer, and then you have this gap in the summer, and there's a lot of individuals who fall through the cracks."

Another factor in Womack's support for the spending bill is the incoming House. While Republicans will control the chamber, not all members have rallied behind current Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

"Given the fractious nature of the incoming majority with evidence -- the speaker's election -- I would be very concerned about our ability to craft a spending plan early in the next year that would be able to make it across the floor of the House and the Senate, and get signed into law," Womack said. "When you look at the situation that we're in, I believe that in the best interest of America's national security with a higher defense number in the omni, it outweighs the concerns I have in the bill."

The omnibus was lawmakers' last priority of the current Congress. The action of legislators came three months into the current fiscal year, triggering a desire for Congress to be more productive with the next appropriations measures.

"This is not how the Congress should work," Cotton said. "I'm as frustrated as anyone that this is not a desirable process."

Womack has advocated for Congress to take up appropriations bills before the new fiscal year begins in October. On Twitter, Westerman called the omnibus the "product of a failed process," adding it was "an honor to vote against such garbage."

In a statement following the vote, Crawford said Congress rushed the spending "just days before the new GOP House majority will take over with a commitment to bring adult leadership to Washington."

Boozman said Congress should take up the appropriations bills individually to allow lawmakers to dictate federal spending. He shared optimism that legislators could restore regular order, citing the recent frustration on Capitol Hill.

"Sen. [Mitch] McConnell has committed to work on this, the Democrats have committed to work on this, Republicans have said that they're going to do this in the House," Boozman said.

"Certainly, my commitment -- I know the Arkansas delegation's commitment -- is to get this back on track so that we have a much more orderly process, a much more transparent process as we go forward."

Hill said House Republicans want to wade through the appropriations process, and he hopes Senate leaders share that commitment.

"I hope that they would prioritize getting their job done over there," he said. "The last two Congresses, the Senate has not taken up the spending bills, and they've constantly waited until the last moment and it creates this kind of dysfunction, lack-of-due-diligence, lack-of-transparency process."


Print Headline: Lawmakers weigh in on spending bill

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