Where the bucks stop

January 13, 2008

The loss of federal funds for a research program aimed at rejuvenating the dwindling blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay highlighted the rare phenomenon of a reverse earmark.

Instead of unalloyed crowing about all the goodies the Maryland delegation was able to bring home for constituents this year, lawmakers acknowledged they were forced to make choices because President Bush wouldn't let them spend all they proposed.

Largely at the discretion of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the senior member of the delegation and chairwoman of the subcommittee that doles out much of the bay funds, the crab program run by the Center of Marine Biotechnology at the Inner Harbor didn't make the cut.

The good news is that some discipline was applied to the earmark process that typically defies thoughtful setting of priorities. What's lamentable is that Mr. Bush's exorbitant spending on the war in Iraq has forced such a terrible squeeze on domestic programs that even the most worthwhile ventures, such as a revolving fund to help communities finance upgrades in their sewage treatment plants, didn't get the money they need.

Folks associated with the crab program, which has received nearly $13 million in federal funds through Senator Mikulski since 2002, protested mightily when they got nothing in the giant spending bill enacted by Congress shortly before Christmas. According to The Sun's Rona Kobell, the money helped pay salaries of up to two dozen scientists at the center, as well as for researchers in Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi. This, after the center had done groundbreaking work in raising large numbers of crabs in a hatchery and mapping migration patterns.

That research seems more valuable than the controversial Oyster Recovery Partnership, another Mikulski earmark that Ms. Kobell revealed last year was essentially a make-work program for watermen. But while federal funds for the oyster program were reduced, it will nonetheless collect nearly $2 million in the year ahead. Plus, Morgan State University got a first-time earmark of $470,000 for an oyster research pilot program to develop "market-based" solutions for oyster recovery. There's no objective competition among such programs. It's all up to Senator Mikulski.

Meanwhile, Chesapeake Bay states are depressingly behind in upgrading their sewage treatments plants, the most important single step to reduce pollution and help all the bay's creatures. For that, they need federal help far beyond what Ms. Mikulski could deliver.

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