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Congressional Change, Local Impact

Earmarks leave deep impressions

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 3: Graduate student Leigh Stracke poses for a snapshot with descriptive signs as students at Gallaudet participate in its' first ever speed dating event, December, 03, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 3: Graduate student Leigh Stracke poses for a snapshot with descriptive signs as students at Gallaudet participate in its' first ever speed dating event, December, 03, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post) (Bill O'leary)
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By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010

The infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" has led some members of Congress to a place where "earmarks" will now be banned as a first step toward reforming its budgeting practices.

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But as House Republicans move toward a moratorium on earmarking, some members point to another span, this one on the Potomac River, to demonstrate the practice's value: the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

If not for $1.5 billion in earmarks secured by a bipartisan coalition of members of Congress from the Washington area, the bridge might have gone nowhere for many years, as former senator John Warner (R) noted at its ribbon-cutting.

Federal and local officials cite plenty of other examples of projects that might not have been advanced, or have gone forward relatively quickly, without earmarks: $29 million to extend Metro service from Tysons Corner to Dulles International Airport, $2.5 million for the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, $700 million for the DeWitt Army Community Hospital at Fort Belvoir. Even Virginia's conservative attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli II, a darling of the tea party movement, sought an earmark to fund Virginia Rules, a legal-education program for middle and high school students.

And that's just Virginia. On the Maryland side, earmarks have carved out more than $2 million to restore the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population and $13 million for the MARC rail line.

"All these things would be lost," said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), one of the region's top earmarkers.

And then there is Occoquan's siren - one of the earmarks that Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said he is most proud of. Uncle Sam is putting $25,000 toward the bill for a warning system to alert townspeople if the 65-foot-high Occoquan Dam suffers a catastrophic failure, a highly unlikely event.

"Earmarks aren't a matter of theology," Connolly said. "They're neither good nor bad. In our region, earmarks have been used for good on both sides of the aisle."

Never mind that the Bridge to Nowhere - an Alaskan boondoggle - was not an earmark. The practice by which members of Congress set aside money for pet projects in their districts has become synonymous with government waste and contributed to Republicans' loss of Congress in 2006. Now that the tea party movement has helped to return them to power in the House, Republicans there have called for a two-year ban on earmarks.

"I voted for the moratorium because they've become so controversial," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Republican in Northern Virginia's most conservative district whose earmarks fund the anti-gang task force.

It's unclear how the ban will work, however, if the Senate doesn't go along. The Senate recently rejected an attempt to ban earmarks on a 59-39 vote. Virginia's senators, both Democrats, were split, with Mark Warner supporting a ban and James Webb voting against it. Maryland's Benjamin L. Cardin (D) also voted against the ban. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) did not vote.

Budget watchdogs know that earmarks account for a tiny slice of federal spending: The deficit stands at $1.4 trillion, and earmarks amount to less than 1 percent of the current fiscal year's budget. But detractors say earmarks have long fostered a culture of federal overspending, often by greasing the skids for huge, expensive bills.


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