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The idea of devoting $1.8 million to research controlling the smell of pig dung stinks to high heaven to opponents of Congress’ proclivity for pork-barrel projects.
"Pigs stink. We know why," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "We know where they live. So is that a priority right now?"
Spending $380,000 in the middle of a severe recession to fix up lighthouses in Maine doesn’t smell a lot better to Coburn and few other Republicans who day after day attack the 8,000 pet projects lawmakers have put into a bill setting a good part of the government’s agenda for the next six months.
What’s new is that more and more lawmakers are standing up to defend their earmarks as vital for people back home. Barack Obama promised during his presidential campaign to curb the practice and demanded that last month’s $787 billion stimulus bill contain "not a single pet project."
"In farm country, manure and odor management are profoundly serious challenges that can be mitigated through scientific research," Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said in a Senate speech last week. His defense of swine odor research and a $5.7 million earmark for school construction in Iowa covers four pages in the Congressional Record.
It turns out that the National Swine Research and Information Center is a long-standing program at the Agriculture Department. Former President George W. Bush proposed eliminating it last year, but Harkin came to its rescue. In a state where the 20 million hogs easily outnumber the 3 million people, the stench of huge pig farming operations is a genuine problem, affecting people’s health and property values.
With a few dozen exceptions, such as Coburn, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, most members of Congress seek earmarks. Lawmakers know the needs of their states and home districts better than administration officials. And it’s not uncommon for administrations to unfairly play favorites.
"I have an obligation to the people of Nevada to make sure there is not some bureaucrat down in one of these big offices in Washington, D.C., who determines every penny spent in Nevada," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Reid points out that the number of earmarks is down by almost half from levels when Republicans controlled Congress. New rules require lists of earmarks and their sponsors be made public.
As for the lighthouses in Maine, the state’s Republican senators spoke in the Senate to defend a grant to the American Lighthouse Foundation to restore and preserve three lighthouses.
Susan Collins noted that the lighthouse foundation has saved the government money by getting private sector dollars to fix up lighthouses and that the lighthouses in question are owned by the federal government and are still important navigational aids.
"This is a great example of why it is important that those of us who are sponsoring this funding come to the floor and explain it," Collins said.
Just before Collins spoke last week, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., defended $3.8 million to help redevelop Tiger Stadium into an anchor for a redevelopment project of retail outlets, restaurants and other commercial projects in Detroit’s struggling Corktown neighborhood.
On Monday, after Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., lambasted the $410 billion spending bill and its earmarks, Appropriations Committee member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., gave an impassioned defense of the practice.
"Yes, I fight for funds for my state. That’s what I came here to do," Feinstein said. "Candidly, why be an appropriator if you can’t help your state?"
Among those who helps his state the most is the committee chairman, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. Inouye obtained 106 earmarks totaling $225 million, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, an earmark watchdog group.
After Coburn scoffed at an earmark by Inouye to give $238,000 to the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which runs voyages using ancient navigation methods in double-hulled sailing canoes, Inouye made an impassioned defense. He said the program instills native Hawaiian youth pride in their heritage and helps troubled, mentally ill youth.
"The voyage is much more than one of miles," Inouye said. "It is a voyage of young people discovering that they are able to accomplish much more than they ever thought possible."