Priorities of Earmarks Are Disputed

The bill would set aside funds to repair historic properties damaged by the storm, including the Jefferson Davis home near the beach in Biloxi, Miss.
The bill would set aside funds to repair historic properties damaged by the storm, including the Jefferson Davis home near the beach in Biloxi, Miss. (By Peter Whoriskey -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

BILOXI, Miss. -- This city's east side remains largely abandoned, a bleak panorama of empty lots and abandoned homes left behind by the tradesmen, shrimpers and casino workers who once lived here.

Hundreds had little or no insurance. For people such as 83-year-old Elzora Brown, a retired dry-cleaning presser whose little frame house was waterlogged up to the eaves, there's not enough federal disaster aid for repairs. "Whatever the Lord sees fit, that's what I'll have," she said.

Just down the coast in Pascagoula, defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. similarly didn't have enough insurance to cover hurricane losses at its shipyards. But the company isn't awaiting divine intervention.

It has an ally in the U.S. Senate and is slated to receive $140 million for rebuilding.

"The losses it incurred . . . could adversely impact those jobs, add to the cost of the high-tech destroyers and cruisers the shipyard is building for the Navy, and affect our national security," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Northrop's money is tucked into the $109 billion spending bill intended for Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war. It is an earmark, one of those narrowly focused appropriations that members of Congress arrange for their constituents or favored recipients.

In recent years, Congress has been on a spending binge worth tens of billions of dollars, and there has been talk on Capitol Hill of reining in earmarks. But the Senate version of the bill includes billions in such spending, covering an array of far-flung causes: New England shellfishermen affected by red tide, a program to fight an insect ravaging pine trees in the Rockies, and a road in Hawaii.

Critics have pointed to the bill as a monumental example of earmarking taken to extremes, with many noting that while the bill was supposed to address "emergency" spending for the war and Katrina relief, many of the outlays have little to do with an emergency, the war or the hurricane.

Usually the critics attack earmarks as wasteful, but the experience in Mississippi reveals another problem, according to some local officials here. No one doubts that the state needs recovery money. The question is whether some of the earmarks for Gulf Coast projects such as Northrop's are coming at the expense of the urgent needs reflected in the abandoned streets.

Among the projects in the Senate version of the bill are $38 million to repair historic Mississippi properties such as Jefferson Davis's home overlooking the beach in Biloxi; $176 million to build a military retirement home in Gulfport; and the biggest project, $700 million to buy an 80-mile stretch of railroad over which a new highway would be built. That project, which has become known as the "railroad to nowhere," was inserted into the bill by Lott and Mississippi's other senator, Thad Cochran (R), chairman of the Appropriations Committee. It would reroute a train line damaged by Katrina -- and already rebuilt at a cost of at least $250 million.

Those projects would help jump-start the area's economic engines, say advocates, and the new highway over the railroad tracks would also improve hurricane safety because it would move east-west traffic away from an existing thoroughfare that hugs the coast.

But many local officials say those expensive projects may be pushing aside more-immediate demands from people still struggling to rebuild their lives.

"What they're saying to Northrop Grumman is 'Here -- here's $140 million. Go get yourself back together,' " said Bill Stallworth, a Biloxi City Council member running a relief center out of a church building here. "What we're saying is 'Look, people, we need more money to get people back in their homes. We need housing. Volunteers can't do it all.' " He said that if the volunteer building crews he uses could just hire a handful of licensed plumbers and electricians, they could increase the number of homes being rebuilt in the area from 10 a month to 100. But there isn't enough money.

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