Earmark list from Md. tops a billion

U.S. House delegation's Ruppersberger alone requests $964 million

April 10, 2009|By Paul West | Paul West,paul.west@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON - In spite of President Barack Obama's call for an end to the "old way of doing business," Maryland's members of Congress are requesting more than $1 billion worth of earmarked projects in federal spending legislation this year, disclosure reports show.

Favored Maryland projects include those related to the Chesapeake Bay, highway construction tied to military base realignment, and aid to local schools and colleges, hospitals, law enforcement and public transit systems. A variety of private firms, mainly defense contractors, could also benefit from earmarks by Marylanders.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger is the state's most prolific earmarker, with total requests of $964.3 million, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis. But the Baltimore County Democrat said local governments, organizations and companies in Maryland that hope to receive federal money should be prepared to wind up empty-handed.

"We're lucky if we get 20 percent of our total amount of earmarks," said Ruppersberger, a member of the Appropriations Committee, which judges all earmark requests and parcels out the money, subject to approval by the full Congress and Obama.

Obama has warned that abuse of earmarks - pet projects sponsored by individual legislators - can be wasteful and corrupt. He has called the awarding of earmarks to private companies "the single most corrupting element."

According to reports posted on their official Web sites, most Maryland members of Congress submitted earmarks that would benefit favored businesses. Obama has said he wants to change that part of the earmark system by introducing competitive bidding, but he has yet to explain how, and watchdog groups remain skeptical.

Only three House members from Maryland limited their requests to governmental agencies or nonprofit organizations - Democratic Reps. Steny H. Hoyer, Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards.

Ruppersberger, a member also of the Intelligence Committee, has requested a $60 million Cray supercomputer for the National Security Agency, the largest employer in his district, if not the state.

This year, for the first time, all House members were required to disclose their earmark requests, exposing them to potential political embarrassment if they fail to deliver on behalf of constituents.

Senators are scheduled to reveal their budget requests later in the year.

"When lawmakers submit these requests, they are literally signing on the dotted line that they think these projects are a good use of public money," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group that has pushed for more transparency on federal spending.

In some cases, House members have made the information extremely difficult to find online.

Rep. John Sarbanes, a Baltimore Democrat, provides no reference to the disclosure on his home page. The earmark requests can be found on a "Grant Announcements" page, labeled as "constituent requests for federal funding" and "required disclosure for national education programs."

"If you kind of tuck it away and hide it under a rock, it doesn't seem like you're proud of your request - at least until you can issue a press release after the grant has been made and you can cut the ribbon," Ellis said.

A Sarbanes spokeswoman, MaKeda Scott, said there was no intention to hide the information.

Under guidelines announced by congressional leaders, total earmarked spending could top $14 billion. Lawmakers point out that earmarks account for just 1 percent or 2 percent of federal spending, but the amount is likely to exceed the entire budget of the Department of the Interior, which oversees the national parks and public lands.

Every House member from Maryland requested more than $300 million in projects, with three representatives - Hoyer, Ruppersberger and Edwards - requesting more than a half-billion dollars each.

The number of earmarks submitted is only a portion of that sought by constituents and reflects an attempt by members of Congress to screen out requests unworthy of federal funding.

Among requests by the state's House members, the biggest dollar amounts were for public works projects, such as transportation or water treatment facilities. Hoyer's $300 million request for a Food and Drug Administration construction project at White Oak was the largest.

A $150 million request for upkeep of the Washington transit system, which also serves the Maryland suburbs, made the list of four congressmen, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore. A total of $10 million for planning the proposed Red Line in Baltimore was requested by Cummings, Ruppersberger and Sarbanes.

Among the most expensive requests in the Baltimore area were dredging projects, including a Sarbanes earmark request for $38.7 million for the city's harbor and ship channels and for the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

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