One of Those Earmarks That Bug People

Editor's Note: No AudioDescribed by scientists as cockroaches with grasshopper legs, Mormon crickets have exasperated settlers in Utah for centuries. Hatching in the spring, they march in packs of thousands, devouring grass and cattle feed and swarming homes and ranches. Video Courtesy Darryl T. Gwynne, Duane Runyan and Gregory A. Sword
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Big bugs with bulging goggle eyes swarmed the remote Utah ranching outpost of Grouse Creek like a biblical plague. Each of the past four summers, the hungry critters known as Mormon crickets have marched by the tens of thousands over grassy hillsides, past juniper trees, across dirt roads and through ranch houses. The noisy insects have devoured crops, frightened children and threatened families' livelihoods in the tranquil high desert.

"It's almost like an Alfred Hitchcock movie," said Brent Tanner, who helps run a large cattle ranch in Grouse Creek that has been in his family since the 1870s. "You just see swarms of these large crickets that move in and can be devastating to crops, and certainly are very irritating. They'll just crawl right into your house, get up on your walls. It's enough to drive a person totally insane."

And this summer, scientists say, it's a sure bet Mormon crickets will be back.

So to the 80-odd folks who live in Grouse Creek, the $1 million congressional earmark secured by their state's junior senator to kill the insects is hardly wasteful pork, as it has been demonized. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and television comedian Jon Stewart may lampoon it as an egregious example of government spending, but to Grouse Creek, the earmark is salvation.

"Everything that's green is just gone," said Tanner's older brother, Jay, who described what happens after Mormon crickets hatch on federal land, migrate onto his family's Della Ranches and eat up acres of grass, alfalfa and cattle feed. "When the crickets come and devastate the area, then I'm done. There's really nothing I can do. It's just like coming in and stealing money out of my wallet."

The passage of a $410 billion omnibus spending bill last week rekindled the debate in Washington over lawmakers' long-standing and fiercely guarded practice of appropriating public money for pet projects. The legislation contained more than 8,500 earmarks, which together accounted for roughly 2 percent of the bill's overall spending.

President Obama, even as he imposed new rules aimed at curbing earmarks and making them more transparent, signed the bill and voiced support for lawmakers having a role in the process.

"I recognize that Congress has the power of the purse," Obama said. "As a former senator, I believe that individual members of Congress understand their districts best. And they should have the ability to respond to the needs of their communities. I don't quarrel with that."

But since the bill was introduced last month, McCain, among the most vocal critics of earmarks, has highlighted projects he considers pork-laden. Opining on his Twitter page about the Mormon crickets earmark, he asked, "Is that the species of cricket or a game played by the brits?"

(In fact, it's neither. Mormon crickets are actually katydids that got their common name when Mormon pioneers settled in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. After their first crops were harvested, according to legend, millions of voracious insects swarmed them. But a band of seagulls swept in, ate the insects and saved the crops. Ever since, the bugs have been called Mormon crickets, and the settlers, crediting divine intervention, incorporated the seagull into spiritual lore.)

On television, news anchors and late-night hosts were astir over earmarks that sounded silly: the Mormon crickets, of course, but also $1.7 million for a honeybee laboratory in Texas, $238,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii and $1.8 million for swine odor and manure management research in Iowa. "This bill is nothing but a porked-up pork chop of pig pork and bacon pork," Stewart deadpanned on "The Daily Show."

Earmarks do not mandate additional spending. Rather, they require federal agencies to set aside portions of their budgets for specific projects. Critics say this process has long been ripe for corruption. McCain recently called the spending provisions a "gateway drug" to possibly illegal forms of influence peddling. "This evil has grown, and it has grown, and it has grown," he said.

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