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Lawmakers defend earmarks as way to bring federal funds home

| Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Far from the high-stakes debates over special interests, presidential promises and $7.7 billion in federal earmarks, Jodi Oliver looks to make room in her library for more books.

The public library she manages in Chippewa, population 7,000, is in line to get $238,000 in federal aid from the 2009 federal budget the Senate approved last night. It's one of 8,570 earmarks in the $410 billion budget, which the House passed last week.

Pennsylvania's lawmakers � including two Republicans who lost re-election in November � earmarked about $571 million for the state in the 2009 budget, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, an anti-earmark watchdog group.

Projects range from a $10,000 grant for Heidelberg police to $134 million for Army Corps of Engineers projects, mostly for repairing locks and dams around Pittsburgh. There's $3.5 million to help the state buy a tree farm, and $528,000 to pay for abstinence education.

Critics say it isn't the role of Congress to make decisions on local priorities. The lawmakers say they were elected to look out for their districts, and that includes making sure federal money flows back home. Though the total cost of earmarks takes up about 1.9 percent of the budget, the projects � sponsored by legislators � have prompted the loudest complaints.

Earmark opponents frequently poke fun at the line items' names. Sens. Arlen Specter and Bob Casey Jr., for example, sponsored a $771,000 earmark labeled in a budget report as "Milk Safety, Pennsylvania State University."

The senators said the research is needed to guard against contamination of products from the state's top agricultural sector � dairy. Chinese-made baby formula contaminated with the industrial pollutant melamine sickened thousands of children last year, Specter's office said.

"People don't get riled up about this once they understand what it is," said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, who sponsored $5.5 million worth of projects on his own, and $19 million with others in Congress.

Doyle teamed with Reps. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, and Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, to set aside $190,000 for a job-training program run by Plumbers Local 27 and Steamfitters Local 449.

"If you know how to weld, there's right now over 100 jobs (around Pittsburgh), jobs that pay $50,000 to $70,000 a year," Doyle said. "What we're trying to do here is give our work force, give people in the Pittsburgh region, the knowledge they need" to get those jobs.

The number of earmarks ballooned during the past decade and peaked at more than 13,000 in 2005. They pollute the budget process, critics contend. Scandals that led to the convictions of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy Cunningham of California began with earmarks.

In November, the FBI raided a lobbying firm and defense contractor linked to Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown. Murtha's aides have said he is not involved in the investigation and has not been contacted by federal authorities about it.

"Earmarks are corrupting, and they distribute money based on politics, not merit," said Brian Riedl, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington policy group.

Democrats are quick to point out that shortly after winning control of Congress in 2006, they passed laws requiring legislators to disclose their earmarks.

"If you want to put something in this budget, you put your name next to it," Doyle said. "Just because one person or three people abuse the system is not a reason to abandon the system."

Riedl advocates giving the earmarked money to states as block grants, then letting states and local governments decide how to spend it.

"It is not the job of the U.S. Senate to decide where to put a street light in New York," Riedl said. "This is why we have mayors, city councils and state legislatures."

Murphy disagrees.

State priorities sometimes lead to small towns being left out, and earmarks are a way around that, he said.

"We're sent here to represent our districts, and oftentimes we know more than federal offices or even (state offices in) Harrisburg what our districts need," Murphy said.

Sometimes that's money for a library, Altmire said.

"My constituents elected me to travel the district, survey local communities' needs, and help advance local initiatives that are making our region stronger," he said.

Oliver, the library manager, just wants more space � a 50-foot-by-50-foot expansion to accommodate the 65,000 books and other media circulating through the tiny municipal building every year. The library's programs include bringing in a therapy dog to which children can read so they "can feel more relaxed reading out loud," Oliver said. The dog's handler helps with the hard words.

"I don't argue that many of these projects may be useful, or even good," said Steve Ellis, Taxpayers for Common Sense spokesman. "But there's no prioritization, no merit-based funding."

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