Earmarks leave deep impressions

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010; B01

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.

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.

Citizens Against Government Waste said that earmarks have risen from 546 projects worth $3.2 billion in 1991, when the group produced its first report on pork-barrel spending, to a peak of $29 billion and 9,963 earmarked projects in 2006. The group identified 9,129 projects worth $16.9 billion in this year's budget.

Cutting them might be a symbolic gesture, but it's an important gesture all the same, said Bill Ahern, a spokesman for the Tax Foundation. "It's kind of a test case for the Congress and the president to prove that they can cut anything," Ahern said, comparing the earmarks moratorium to community policing strategies that targeted low-level offenses as a start toward reducing more serious crimes.

Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, calls earmarks "gateway drugs" for big spenders, especially on farm, defense and health bills.

"I think the earmark system is a symptom of a broken budgeting process," said Rep. Rob Wittman, a Republican from Prince William County who said he has foresworn all but defense- or security-related earmarks since 2009 because of their dubiousness.

But Moran is not shy about his belief that a representative's job is to bring home the bacon. His Web site includes a wish list of 150 earmarked projects in a breathtaking array of subjects, sometimes far from his district. They include $1.5 million for the District's Center for Mind-Body Medicine, which seeks to treat psychological problems of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; $10 million for the John P. Murtha Center for Public Service to educate youth in Johnstown, Pa.; $900,000 for the Tahirih Justice Center in Falls Church to provide legal services for immigrant women escaping gender-based violence; $350,000 for police radios in Arlington County; and $500,000 for the National Audubon Society's program that helps people make nature-friendly back yards.

Local and federal officials say many earmarks have proven to be essential in the region, especially for transportation projects in traffic-clogged areas.

"People look around Fairfax County, and they see a lot going on. But once these [transportation] projects are done, the state's cupboard is bare," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D).

Others argue that the pledge to go cold turkey on earmarks will not reduce government pork. Instead, decision-making for funding public projects will shift from the legislative branch to the executive, where agency officials will choose among competing projects.

And critics say it's naive to think politics do not enter into those deliberations. "Trusting to the tender mercies of the federal agencies is a stretch," Connolly said.

Without earmarks, money appropriated by Congress that would now go directly to a project in Northern Virginia would instead go into a larger pot of money for the entire state, thereby ceding more control to Richmond. Money also would likely find its way to entities that are already large and sophisticated enough to capture those funds. Fairfax County, for example, can afford to hire grant writers. Small towns like Occoquan cannot.

For years, the small Prince William County town discussed the need for a warning siren on the Occoquan Dam, but nothing happened - until Connolly's earmark helped defray the $201,400 total cost.

"I would say it's a very valuable project for us," said Occoquan's mayor, Earnest W. Porta Jr. "If the dam were to break on a sunny day, we'd have no way of getting people out of town."

But others wonder why the federal government should be using its resources, even when the amount of money expended is small, for such a hyper-local project that town and Fairfax Water officials acknowledged would have gotten done anyway.

"I'm not a fan of earmarks," Porta said. "I'd be lying if I told you that I wasn't conflicted about us even going to Gerry Connolly, quite frankly. But this is the way the system works right now: It was there, and it's going to go somewhere."

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