An eye on earmarks: There's something in them for everyone

April 12, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

I think I've come up with the ultimate earmark: "BioAgroEco Infrastructure Improvements to 911 Communications, Chesapeake Oyster Protection and Endless Preparations for BRAC - Plus a Little Something for Girl Scouts, Easter Seals and Victims of Head Trauma."

Reading through the earmark wish lists that Maryland's congressional representatives have compiled, I thought of that old song about the ultimate country lyrics, covering all the bases beloved by that genre: "Well, I was drunk the day my mama got out of prison, and I went to pick her up in the rain. But before I could get to the station in a pickup truck, she got runned over by a damned old train."

So it is with the earmarks that Maryland's delegation are requesting - all the usual suspects on the state's checklist of the deserving get a nod, or five: the bay, the police, the children, the military, the medical research.

Thanks to the new transparency that Congress is now supposed to be operating under when it comes to the hot topic of earmarks, House members had to make public which projects they want funded in the 2010 budget. (Senators have a later deadline to do the same.)

Earmarks, of course, became a campaign issue last year, denounced as the ultimate in government waste and pork barrel spending. Never mind that a) they represent a tiny fraction, 1 percent or 2 percent, of total federal spending and b) their loudest critics often turned out to be the same ones who requested and accepted them for their states.

Still, earmarks remain the potato chip of politicians. They may be bad for you - some opponent is likely to find a mockable request you've made involving fruit flies or volcanoes - but they're ultimately irresistible.

For all the cheap and easy outrage you can generate by highlighting a project that seems trivial - some of the great advances in science, after all, have come from research involving fruit flies - surely earmarks have funded some worthy local projects that otherwise wouldn't have come to the attention of those who control the budget in Washington.

So the solution was not to outlaw earmarks but to make the process a more public one: Congressional representatives now have to publish their earmark requests on their official Web sites, rather than springing them at the last minute attached to some legislation as it heads to the floor for a vote. For all the grandstanding about the evils of earmarks, and while some missed the April 4 deadline for publishing their wish lists, most House members managed to find a few projects that deserved funding.

Maryland's congressional delegation complied with the requirement, although some presented their earmark lists on their Web sites with more opacity than transparency, The Baltimore Sun's Paul West reported on Friday. Luckily, he provided a click-by-click guide to finding some of the more well-hidden lists.

Maybe it's because earmarks were going to get more scrutiny this year than in the past, but reading through the Maryland reps' requests, I had to stifle a few yawns. The lists are nothing if not earnest and well-meaning, practically multigrained in how good for you just about everything seemed. Is there anyone who doesn't want to help the bay, the police and sick people, or fund public transit, medical research, improved food safety and better weaponry for the troops?

I lost track of the number of earmarks that featured the word "Chesapeake" in their titles. If every Chesapeake-related earmark were approved, apparently every drop of bay water, every bay-dwelling oyster, every bobbing buoy, every blade of marsh grass, every nutrient or sediment that threatens to run off into the bay would be minutely studied, monitored and measured.

First responders' needs, emergency communications systems and other local and state police wishes get much attention. Programs with buzzwords like gang intervention and youth mentoring and domestic violence make the lists. Maryland's medical and biotech fields would certainly benefit - funds would be channeled toward everything from diabetes to battlefield wound treatment to brain trauma rehabilitation.

BRAC, the base realignment program expected to bring an influx of new residents to the state, gets cited for all sorts of projects at Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade and the counties they're in.

Maybe there are some boondoggles in the lists, maybe some funneling of funds as payback for a campaign contribution or favor, some road work that benefits a particularly favored constituency. It's hard to tell from the brief capsule descriptions. Some seem entirely provincial (the $25,000 Rep. Elijah E. Cummings wants for the "7th District Eye Care Initiative"), or something that private rather than public money should go toward (the $500,000 Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger seeks for the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation to expand its programs for disadvantaged children).

These are just requests at this point - and West quoted Ruppersberger as saying Maryland would be lucky to get 20 percent of what its representatives are asking for. But at least with the new requirement that lawmakers disclose what they're requesting, the word "earmark" now actually means something besides "a project someone else wants funded."

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