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Pork music to House ears

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Even though members of Congress cut back their pork barrel spending this year, House lawmakers still tacked on to the military appropriations bill $1.8 billion to pay 580 private companies for projects the Pentagon did not request.

Twenty-one members were responsible for about $1 billion in earmarks, or financing for pet projects, according to data lawmakers were required to disclose for the first time this year. Each asked for more than $20 million for businesses mostly in their districts, ranging from major military contractors to little-known startups.

The list is topped by the veteran earmark champions Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is the chairman of the powerful defense appropriations subcommittee, and Rep. C.W. Bill Young, of Florida, the top Republican on the panel, who asked for $166 million and $117 million respectively. It also includes $92 million in requests from Rep. Jerry Lewis, a California Republican and committee member who is under federal investigation for his ties to a lobbying firm whose clients often benefited from his earmarks.

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, requested $32 million in earmarks, while Marylander Steny H. Hoyer, the majority leader, asked for $26 million for projects in the $459.6 billion defense bill, the largest of the appropriations bills that go through Congress.

As promised when they took control of Congress in January, House Democratic leaders cut in half from last year the value of earmarks in this year's bill, as they did in the other 11 agency spending measures. But some lawmakers complained that the leadership failed to address what it had called a "culture of corruption" in which members seek earmarks to benefit corporate donors. Earmarks have been a recurring issue in congressional scandals, most recently the 2005 conviction of former Rep. Randy Cunningham, a California Republican, for accepting bribes from defense contractors.

"Pork hasn't gone away at all," said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and vocal earmark critic who cites the "circular fundraising" surrounding many earmarks. "It would be wonderful if this was a partisan issue, with Republicans on the right side, but it is really not. Many of these companies use money appropriated through earmarks to turn around and lobby for more money. Some of them are just there to receive earmarks."

Congressional earmarks, which are not competitively bid, have tripled over the past decade, amounting to $31 billion last year, and the Bush administration has complained that they waste taxpayer dollars and skew priorities from critical military needs, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global war on terrorism.

Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, though, sees the costs of earmarks as less of a problem than their potential for abuse.

"The fiscal fallout of earmarks is trivial," he said. But they can lead to "conflicts of interest, the irrational and unconstructive allocation of resources, or their use by congressional leaders as carrots and sticks to buy votes for larger measures that clearly lack majority support on the merits."

The House version of the military bill includes 1,337 earmarks totaling $3 billion, the most congressional earmarks in any of the spending bills passed this year. A conference committee is now reconciling House and Senate versions. The Senate added about $5 billion in earmarks to the bill, but it is difficult to determine the sponsors because it has no disclosure rules.

About half of the House military earmarks go to universities, military bases and other public institutions; the other half to businesses and nonprofits. For the first time, members submitted written requests for each project and statements attesting that they had no personal financial interests in them. Previously, earmarks often were inserted anonymously. The New York Times analysis of earmarks used data compiled by the Washington-based watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense along with campaign contribution and lobbying records.

Democrats consider earmark reform a success because they have significantly reduced their cost and brought "disclosure so constituents can see what their members have asked for," said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Pelosi. "That's one of the things we wanted to change, to bring more openness." But the House Republican Conference continues to accuse Democrats of using earmarks as a "slush fund."

Murtha has drawn much attention this year, first as he bitterly opposed the legislation requiring disclosure of earmarks, then continued his habit of submitting dozens of requests, most benefiting his hometown of Johnstown, Pa. (He asked for 47 earmarks.)

Young requested earmarks for 51 projects totaling $117 million. All but 15 requests benefit defense firms. Young said his numbers are high because, as ranking subcommittee member, he seeks earmarks on behalf of other Republicans.

Pelosi and Hoyer each had 10 earmarks in the bill. Five of Pelosi's went to companies in her district, as did six of Hoyer's.

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