Hoyer Is Proof of Earmarks' Endurance

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 10, 2007

Even as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer has joined in steps to clean up pork-barrel spending, the Maryland congressman has tucked $96 million worth of pet projects into next year's federal budget, including $450,000 for a campaign donor's foundation.

Hoyer (D) is one of the top 10 earmarkers in the House for 2008, based on budget requests in bills so far, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent watchdog group.

Earmarks are spending items inserted into bills to benefit designated companies or projects, often in the sponsoring lawmaker's district. They make up a small percentage of the federal budget. But because the grants often aren't subject to competitive bidding or much scrutiny, they can go to projects that are wasteful or reward campaign contributors, watchdog groups say.

Congressional leaders obtain a disproportionate share of approved earmarks, showing "these decisions are based on political muscle rather than project merit," said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Hoyer defends his earmarks, saying they fund such worthy causes as cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and supporting local military bases. For 2008, he has requested millions of dollars to equip police in his district, help schools and improve roads and the Southern Maryland bus network. His $96 million in earmarks includes projects he sponsored alone and with other legislators, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Republicans had come under fire as earmarks tripled during their 12 years of congressional control, to nearly 13,000 in 2006. Some projects, such as a $223 million bridge to a sparsely populated Alaskan island -- dubbed a "bridge to nowhere" -- stirred public ridicule.

Since assuming control of Congress, Democrats have taken some important steps to clean up the practice, watchdog groups say. Lawmakers are now required to disclose their earmarks. And House and Senate leaders have agreed to cut earmark spending by 40 percent in the 2008 budget bills, most of which are being wrapped into a giant package to be presented this week.

"We made very substantial progress in making sure that earmarks, which I support, are transparent," Hoyer said in an interview.

And yet, pet projects can still be slipped into bills with little scrutiny.

Consider the $450,000 that Hoyer inserted into a 2008 education spending bill for the California-based InTune Foundation Group, whose Web site describes it as a music-education nonprofit group.

In 2005, InTune got a previous earmark for nearly $500,000 to develop lesson plans on funk music and Nobel Peace laureates. Asked recently how effective that program had been, Education Department officials said they didn't know. InTune hadn't turned in a report on what it did, officials said.

"It is significantly past due," department spokeswoman Rebecca Neale said, noting that the deadline was September 2006. She said that the department had tried to reach InTune but that its old telephone and e-mail were out of service and there was no contact information on its Web site.

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