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Once derided as ‘pork,’ earmarks have changed — and Democratic lawmakers say the reformed spending requests can help Maryland

WASHINGTON — Officially, U.S. House members don’t call them “earmarks” anymore. That term for pet projects became a symbol of wasteful and stealthy spending that lawmakers slipped into congressional budgets.

But a decade after being scrapped by congressional leaders, earmarks are returning, albeit with a new name and approach. And online records show Baltimore-area lawmakers — except for U.S. Rep. Andy Harris — plan to make heavy use of the revived spending tool.

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They say the “community project funding” of today is publicly vetted and bears little resemblance to its disgraced predecessors.

“Look at the things that really killed the earmarks: it was the abuses,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat. “There was no disclosure.”

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Earmarks differ from other congressional spending because they specify funding for projects by name.

In the past, large spending bills might have included difficult-to-decipher earmarks with no discernible sponsors. Among the most infamous earmarks in Congress was a $223 million “bridge to nowhere,” which was to connect an Alaskan community to an airport in the early 2000s, but was scrapped as unnecessary. Egregious earmarks were often called “pork-barrel spending,” or simply “pork.”

Ruppersberger and other Democrats, who control the House agenda by virtue of their majority, say it’s different these days. The Appropriations Committee, of which Ruppersberger is a member, says lawmakers must be able to demonstrate their earmarks have community support. Each member is limited to 10 earmarks.

Ruppersberger has proposed nine, while fellow Maryland Democratic Reps. Kweisi Mfume, John Sarbanes, Anthony Brown, Steny Hoyer, David Trone and Jamie Raskin have proposed 10 each.

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New House requirements specify the online disclosure of the proposals. Sponsors also must post their requests on their congressional websites and assert that they won’t benefit financially from the projects.

In all, online records show Marylanders have proposed tens of millions of dollars in earmarks to local governments or nonprofits, including $4.5 million proposed by Ruppersberger for a science center in Harford County called Discovery Center at Water’s Edge; $5 million to redevelop Baltimore’s Ambassador Theater into a minority community arts and culture center; $2 million to revitalize the historic Avenue Market in Upton in West Baltimore; and $846,000 to fund a Frederick County center for people undergoing a mental health or substance abuse crisis. The Baltimore proposals were made by Mfume, while the Frederick earmark was requested by Trone.

Ruppersberger’s other earmark requests include $2 million apiece to expand telehealth for Baltimore seniors, and to help fund Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s plan to divert some 911 calls from police to behavioral health specialists.

The deadline for submitting requests was April 30, although lawmakers have been permitted to amend their lists.

Harris is the only Marylander in the U.S. House not seeking any earmarks, according to online records, although many Republicans in other states are. Harris is the Maryland delegation’s only Republican and represents parts of Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties, as well as the Eastern Shore.

Neither Harris nor his staff responded to Baltimore Sun requests seeking comment. Other conservative Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have said earmarks contribute to excess spending and are ripe for abuse by lawmakers.

Before being elected to the House for the first time in 2010, Harris vowed to abstain from earmarking, saying that shunning the process would help preserve his independence. In 2011, the Republican leadership in Congress announced it was placing a moratorium on the practice.

Harris was among 29 GOP representatives who wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, in March pledging “that we will not request earmarks, or the preferred euphemism of the day, ‘Community Project Funding.’”

“There were a few outliers like Andy,” said Trone, who represents Western Maryland and part of Montgomery County. “If a Democrat wanted to bring water to a desert, my guess is Andy Harris would be opposed. I guess he decided his district didn’t need anything.”

Trone and Harris are also members of the Appropriations Committee.

All of the requests are to be vetted by the appropriations panel. Those that survive may end up in a large spending package called an “omnibus” bill that likely won’t be considered for months.

“Only a handful of each member’s requests may be funded,” the appropriations committee said in an online guide.

U.S. senators, who are not limited in their numbers of requests for what that chamber now calls “congressionally directed spending,” are finalizing their earmark proposals. Their lists are to be made public gradually, beginning with requests relating to energy, water and agriculture in early July.

In announcing the restoration of earmarks in April, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said Congress had ceded too much authority over spending to the executive branch “to make decisions about how and where to invest federal taxpayer dollars.”

Other Democrats say congressional earmarks are preferable to lawmakers writing directly to federal agencies seeking a project’s funding — an action that may never become public. The earmarks Maryland lawmakers are seeking are for “programs that would have ultimately been decided by the executive branch,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, the Maryland Democrat.

“One of our principal functions [of Congress] is to appropriate funds,” Cardin said. “There are really significant guardrails as to what type of programs are eligible for congressional earmarks. You can’t invent these projects.”

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