Earmarked for Maryland

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - Members of the state's congressional delegation have earmarked money for more than 200 pet projects as part of a huge $410 billion spending measure nearing final action in Congress, a Baltimore Sun analysis shows.

Earmarks by Maryland lawmakers from both political parties would funnel more than $200 million to projects in every corner of the state. A final vote on the omnibus spending measure could come as early as tonight, though opposition from a few Democrats and most Republicans in the Senate could jeopardize chances for approval in its current form.

Maryland projects that would get an infusion of federal dollars include efforts to restore Chesapeake Bay oysters, aid watermen, assist local law enforcement agencies, bolster the MARC train system and build highways to expanding military facilities.

Other projects that would receive funding include:

* The Joseph Richey House in Baltimore would get $714,00 for construction of Dr. Bob's Place Children's Hospice, courtesy of earmarks by Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin. The two Maryland Democrats also have earmarked $1 million for the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation in Baltimore, which works with disadvantaged kids.

* Joppatowne High School would receive $143,000 for a career and technical education program from an earmark by Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County. Takoma Park would get $190,000 for an auditorium, thanks to a request by local Rep. Chris Van Hollen. And $280,000 for the state to research alternative uses of tobacco was earmarked by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland.

Mikulski, a strong defender of the system, said earmarks enable her to "exercise my independent judgment on how best to help my constituents."

"There was no doubt that under the Republican administration the earmark process was corrupted. They built bridges to nowhere," she said, adding that she supports efforts to make the process more open and force lawmakers to "own up" to their earmark requests.

Without earmarks, Mikulski said, "we would not have health care for the homeless. We would not have a project for hospice care for children."

Pork-barrel politics

President Barack Obama, who has called for cutting the number of earmarks in half, is rejecting calls for him to veto the omnibus spending measure. Aides said that he would sign it into law, while insisting on future earmark reforms.

White House officials have termed the latest spending package "last year's business." It combines nine fiscal 2009 spending measures that were stymied by disagreements between Congress and the administration of President George W. Bush.

But Sen. John McCain, who failed this week to persuade the Senate to strip out the estimated 8,500 earmarks, called it "this year's business and this president's business and this Congress' business to do what is fiscally responsible."

McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and a longtime earmark foe, accused Obama of breaking a campaign promise to reform earmarking.

Ruppersberger said it was "unfortunate" that the 2008 presidential campaign "made earmarks an issue," because it's "really about you as a member of Congress knowing your district."

The Maryland Democrat, who, like Mikulski, helps direct earmark funding to the state as a member of the Appropriations Committee, said he's "not going to get into it with Obama" over earmarks, but that "if you don't have earmarks, then you turn it over to the administration and the bureaucracy" to decide how federal money gets distributed, "and nobody in the administration knows my district like I do."

Congress has curbed earmark excesses in recent years by making the process more open to public scrutiny and reducing the overall impact of earmarks on federal spending.

The total amount of earmarks in the omnibus measure is at least $7.7 billion, or 2 percent of the total, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a conservative watchdog group. Democrats put the figure at $3.8 billion.

Pork-barrel spending is a long-standing and treasured congressional prerogative. And members of Congress are cautioning Obama - who requested earmarks as an Illinois senator - not to intrude on their constitutional authority to spend.

"I don't think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do. I hope all of you got that down," Hoyer told reporters recently.

Senators and congressmen use earmarks to assist their district or particular constituents. Critics note that earmarks bypass the regular legislative process and receive less scrutiny than other spending.

Md. lawmakers do

Not all lawmakers submit earmarks, though every one of Maryland's representatives and senators did last year. Newly elected Rep. Frank Kratovil, a Democrat, also plans to request earmarks, his office said.

Cardin estimates that he gets at least 1,000 earmark requests each year. The senator said he consults with state and local officials on the merits of each one and that he passes along only those that he considers worthy of consideration by the Appropriations Committee, which has the final say.

There have been "huge problems" with earmarks in the past, he said, but "I wouldn't throw it all out."

Taxpayers for Common Sense ranked Cardin and Mikulski 22nd and 23rd, respectively, out of 100 senators, in terms of the amount of earmarked money that they requested.

The state's lone Republican in Washington, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who considers himself a fiscal conservative, attacked Democratic plans to "ram through" the omnibus measure, which would increase federal discretionary spending by 8 percent. Bartlett, who declined a reporter's request to discuss the subject, is one of the state's more prolific earmarkers.

Bartlett voted against the measure in the House, but his Western Maryland district would receive millions of dollars in earmarked money anyway. And he will likely get the credit if the measure becomes law.

The congressman from Frederick made 27 earmark requests for agencies covered in the legislation and at least a dozen were granted. For example, Frostburg State University will get $856,350 for a sustainable energy research facility on its campus.

The school's Web site says that half of the money to build the center came through an earlier request by Bartlett for a "congressionally directed project," the phrase that lawmakers prefer to use instead of earmarks.

As Hoyer said this week, in something of an understatement, earmark "is almost a pejorative term."

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