This was a vote on an amendment by Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) that would have authorized Doña Ana County in New Mexico to enter into a land transfer agreement allowing the county to build an alternative access road to its airport. This amendment was offered to legislation authorizing annual funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, and limiting the ability of federal aviation and railroad workers to form unions. (The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has regulatory authority over all civil aviation in the United States.)
Under the agreement, Doña Ana County would be permitted to transfer land to a private company that sought to develop the area surrounding the airport. In return, the company (Verde Corporate Realty Services) would transfer land to the county for the construction of a new access road to the airport. Doña Ana needed federal permission to engage in this transaction because the county’s land had been given by the federal government to the Doña Ana specifically for the development of an airport. Current law required that such land be automatically returned to the federal government in the event that the county chose not to use the land for airport development purposes. (Current law did not allow for such land to be transferred to a private company.)
Pearce urged support for his amendment: “This amendment is at the request of the local county, Dona Ana County, in New Mexico. They have land which alternates with a private investor. They are simply asking that 7.35 acres be given to them and they would in turn give up 8.41 acres to this private company….This land swap is by the mutual agreement of all parties concerned. The FAA has no objections to the transaction.”
Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) opposed the amendment, and argued that the land transfer amounted to a congressional earmark—provisions tucked into legislation that benefit a particular interest, organization or locale. The rules of the House of Representatives banned such provisions from being included in House-passed legislation. Thus, Rahall argued that the amendment violated House rules. He contended: “First I want to read through the rules of the House and what I understand is a congressional earmark….[The rules state that] a congressional earmark is defined as a provision included at the request of a member authorizing or recommending spending authority for an entity or targeted to a specific locality or congressional district. The amendment before us qualifies as a congressional earmark. The gentleman from New Mexico specifically is requesting the provision.”
Pearce countered that his amendment did not amount to an earmark because it did not provide for a transfer of monetary value to the county or the private company involved in the land transfer: “ Since there is no money actually changing hands, there is not any value changing hands, it appears that the rule that the gentleman refers to is not invoked.” Pearce also argued: “There's no loss to the county--no loss or no gain to the county. There are 7 acres that are in triangular shapes up against the county. They're not able to do anything with the airport on that side. They're simply asking that these triangular shapes be exchanged out so that there is a strip of land that they can develop. There is no difference in value to either the county or to the company.”
Rahall responded: “I raise these questions… because what looks like an earmark, walks like an earmark, smells like an earmark, must be an earmark.”
The House rejected this amendment by a vote of 207-215. Voting “yea” were 196 Republicans and 11 Democrats. 177 Democrats and 38 Republicans voted “nay.” As a result, the House rejected an amendment that would have authorized Doña Ana County in New Mexico to enter into a land transfer agreement allowing the county to build an alternative access road to its airport.