WASHINGTON -- Anyone seeking a quick-and-dirty lesson in how pork-barrel politics works on Capitol Hill could look at how much money each Maryland congressional district received from a $9 billion highway fund controlled by the chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
The spoils from the fund -- part of the largest transportation measure in U.S. history -- were utterly unmarred by partisan taint. The committee chairman, Rep. Bud Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, graced the district of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, with three projects totaling $40 million as a reward for Cummings' loyal support for the highway bill.
By contrast, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who voted against the $9 billion in special projects, received not one penny for the 2nd District. Goose eggs. Zip.
It helps that Cummings serves on Shuster's committee. But Cummings also aided his cause: He supported an unsuccessful measure in May to allow the committee to add $32 billion more to its $217 billion transportation bill -- money that many budget-minded members called excessive.
"I voted with Mr. Shuster," Cummings says. "He made it very clear that those people who voted with him, he would try to help."
It's a fundamental principle of politics that has nothing to do with party affiliation: When it's time to divvy up money, a committee chairman is likely to help those who have helped him.
Those priorities are not cast in stone: House and Senate negotiators will begin this week to iron out differences between their two transportation measures, during which senators will promote their own projects. For example, Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican, is expected to push for $900 million to overhaul the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which spans from Prince George's County to Alexandria, Va.
The $40 million for Cummings' district would pay for computerized city street signs, road repair in the East Baltimore Empowerment Zone, and an overhaul of a stretch of the west side of the Baltimore Beltway. Cummings says the projects are desperately needed to promote job creation and businesses.
The only other Maryland representative who supported Shuster's failed drive to raise spending limits, Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a
Prince George's County Democrat, secured $20 million for his district. That's more than was allotted to any of the other five Maryland representatives not on the transportation panel.
Like Cummings, Wynn points unapologetically to what he says are his district's urgent needs.
"I've been supportive of transportation funding increases," Wynn says. "We have some of the worst traffic congestion in the country in the Washington metropolitan region."
Thanks to Wynn's efforts, the bill would improve a U.S. 29 interchange in Montgomery County and two other highway interchanges in Prince George's.
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican who pushed for several projects for his district, would receive $19 million, mainly to smooth out the interchange of I-270, I-70 and U.S. 340 near Bartlett's hometown of Frederick.
The pool is a relatively small component of a comprehensive six-year, $217 billion bill that would pay for an extraordinary amount of work on roads and bridges. The state stands to receive between $410 million and $440 million over six years from other parts of the highway bill. Were the House bill to become law, Maryland would also receive $136 million in special projects.
Shuster has vigorously denied that he used the $9 billion fund to reward supporters, or that he packed the committee with 73 members, by far the most of any House panel, in order to grease the overall bill's way through the House. (The average House committee has about 41 members.)
Protests aside, most members clamored to tap that pool, which is jealously guarded by Shuster and his Democratic counterpart, Rep. James L. Oberstar of Minnesota.
"These kinds of project are key for politicians to bring home and announce, especially during an election year," said Jennifer Shecter, a researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics who followed the bill. "It just brings up the question: Is there enough money for this? It's not necessarily in the best interest of the taxpayer."
The Transportation Committee's members, each of whom received an allocation estimated at $40 million, voted 69-0 to pass the bill last month. The full House passed it, 339-80, on April 1.
Of Maryland's eight representatives, Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, Steny H. Hoyer and Constance A. Morella voted against the final package. Ehrlich and Morella had voted for a failed amendment that would have stripped the transportation bill of all the discretionary highway projects.
Ehrlich, allied with a small group of fiscal hawks, says he wants nothing to do with the deal-making required to win pet projects.
"Maryland deserves its fair share of highway funds," Ehrlich says. "But once you play that game, they've gotcha. Demonstration projects, for the most part, constitute what most people would consider to be classic pork."
Even Ehrlich, however, could not resist pressure to ask Shuster for money for one project. At the request of state officials, Ehrlich sought $12 million to improve the treacherous York Road interchange at the Baltimore Beltway in Towson. But he did not campaign for the money, and his request was turned down. Although Ehrlich voted in favor of the overall package, he voted against Shuster's special projects fund.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican who is also a member of the Transportation Committee, focused on winning mass transit money for the state's buses from other parts of the bill. He did, however, successfully seek $24 million to upgrade Route 113 in Worcester County, citing safety concerns.
Many of the individual items in the House bill were hard won. Originally, Hoyer, a Democrat from Southern Maryland, was allotted two $4 million projects, one for improvements to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, for which he had sought $24 million; the other to upgrade Route 210 near the Capital Beltway. Hoyer abandoned the Route 210 project and concentrated on winning more money for the parkway.
Hoyer drew upon chits earned during 17 years in office and pushed his fellow Democrat Oberstar to provide more money for the Baltimore-Washington Parkway project, two House aides said. That project is scheduled to receive $15 million.
Bill Miller, Morella's chief of staff, says the Montgomery County Republican sought a single item from the fund: an off-ramp on I-270 near Lockheed Martin Corp. to allow traffic to flow more easily to a major corporate park. With Gilchrest's support, Shuster's bill designated $10 million.
And Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, received $8 million to expand Route 32 near the National Security Agency and to upgrade greenways in Baltimore.
Shuster made it clear, Cummings says, that votes to support raising the spending limits, the special projects and the overall bill would count when it came time to assign money to congressional districts. Cummings adds, "That's politics, you know?"
Pub Date: 4/21/98