The question was put to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer during a visit to the Asbury Senior Center in Calvert County: Will there ever be an end to pork-barrel spending in Congress?
"I hope not," the 12-term incumbent said matter-of-factly.
To most, Hoyer is known as the House's second-ranking Democrat. At home in the 5th Congressional District, he is the ever-reliable source of federal largesse.
He is among the House's 10 most prodigious suppliers of pork, according to David Williams, a vice president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit group that tracks federal spending that it considers mismanaged or inefficient.
Since 2002, by Williams's count, Hoyer has funneled $40.8 million back to his district, which takes in outer Prince George's County, southern Anne Arundel County and all of Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
Many of Hoyer's gifts were smallish amounts tucked into larger appropriations bills. Williams pointed out a couple: $90,000 to the City of La Plata for a parking facility and $50,000 for the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville to study the health benefits of barley.
Hoyer's view, of course, is that one person's pork is another's legitimate program.
"Pork barrel is in the eye of the beholder," he said.
And what it means is that pork trumps partisanship in the 5th. In a district where 55 percent of registered voters are Democrats, Hoyer claimed 69 percent of the vote in 2002 by attracting Republicans and independents.
That record is part of the reason Hoyer is a daunting target for his Republican challenger, former Berwyn Heights mayor Brad Jewitt.
Take Edwin Wenig, 86, a lifelong Republican who lives in College Park. The retired mechanical engineer, who plans to vote for President Bush this year, disagrees with Hoyer virtually across the board. He supports a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, opposes abortion rights and backs Bush's handling of the war in Iraq.
But come Nov. 2, he's a Hoyer man.
"Yes, I know he's a Democrat," he said. "But I've always voted for Steny Hoyer. He's done a lot for this district."
Hoyer, 65, of Mechanicsville, offers a lengthy list of ways he has used his congressional influence to help not just narrow interests but the larger local economy. They include blocking an attempt to move NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt in 1995; $14 million since 2001 to build the National Center for Weather and Climate Prediction in College Park; and $6.5 million secured for telecommuting centers in the district.
But in Southern Maryland, many residents say they need just one reason to vote for Hoyer: the bases.
In 2005, the Pentagon will begin a round of closures that could affect Patuxent River Naval Air Station and Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center, the area's major engines of economic growth. In 1993, Hoyer played a key role in keeping the bases open. Patuxent actually ended up with 5,000 new jobs.
Larry Wise, a registered Republican and local manager of BAE Systems, a defense contractor with almost 1,000 employees in St. Mary's, said Hoyer has been critical to protecting the bases.
"I would shudder to think what this community would be like if Congressman Hoyer weren't here to protect these bases," he said. "We're better off with him than we are with someone else, no offense to the opponent."
Jewitt, 34, said Congress is far different now than it was during the last round of base closures before the Democrats lost the House.
"A first-term Republican is going to be in a better position to represent Southern Maryland than a senior Democrat," he said.
Hoyer responded, "I don't think anyone would believe that."
Since becoming minority whip in 2002, Hoyer has been increasingly strident in his criticism of the Republican Congress and Bush administration.
"This administration is a failed administration," he said. "They can claim no policy success. [Bush] has lost jobs; he's created huge deficits; he's created a fiscally totally irresponsible policy."
Hoyer described the deficit, which he said would total $2.3 trillion over the next 10 years, as the most pressing problem facing the country. He would not rule out the possibility of raising taxes on the middle-class to pay off the debt.
"Unlike John Kerry," the Democratic presidential nominee, "I am not prepared to make an absolute pledge" not to raise middle-class taxes, Hoyer said. "If we as a democracy decide to buy things, we need to pay for them."
Hoyer, who describes himself as a pro-defense centrist Democrat, also accuses the president of rushing to invade Iraq. But he declined to call the war a mistake.
"I think we were premature -- that's not saying we were wrong -- but I think the timing of our actions [in Iraq] undermined our actions in Afghanistan," he said. "That was a mistake."
On social issues, Jewitt has accused Hoyer of being too liberal. Hoyer voted against banning the procedure that opponents refer to as partial-birth abortion, calling it an unconstitutional measure that does not allow for exceptions to protect the mother. Jewitt supports abortion rights but said he opposes that procedure.
Hoyer also voted against a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, a measure that Jewitt supports. Hoyer said he believes that marriage is between a man and a woman but that the issue should be left to the states. Both candidates said they support civil unions for same-sex couples.
Although he can be a vocal critic of Republican policies, Hoyer has also taken a lead role on several bipartisan legislative efforts. In 2001, he was the principal House Democratic sponsor of the Help America Vote Act, which was designed to reform the election process.
Unlike many career politicians, Hoyer didn't have boyhood dreams of holding office. As a freshman at the University of Maryland, Hoyer was an unmotivated student looking toward a career in business or public relations.
Then the 19-year-old sophomore heard John F. Kennedy speak.
"I switched my major the next week to pre-law," Hoyer said. "He really gave me a sense of purpose."
He won election to the state Senate straight out of law school in 1966. At age 35, he became the Maryland Senate's youngest president ever. In 1981, he won a special election to the House seat.
Ever since, Hoyer said, he has been trying to live up to Kennedy's injunction to make a difference in the world. He does that as a congressman in two ways, he said: The first is by setting policy and casting votes.
"The second role is what I call the ombudsman role," he said, "Making sure the district and its residents are treated fairly by the government."
Tomorrow: Republican challenger Brad Jewitt.