Published March 04, 2009
Just saying the word "earmark" causes cringing in the halls of Congress.
The practice is legendary, and duty zealously guarded by members, Republican and Democratic alike. But opponents, and there are a few, have vilified the task to such a degree that sponsors are now on serious defense.
The $410 billion omnibus spending bill is filled with earmarks, special projects requested by specific members very often for their home states.
On Wednesday, the Senate approved 13 spending projects sought by a lobbying firm accused of funneling illegal campaign contributions to lawmakers
Senators voted 52-43 to preserve the so-called earmarks in a 1,000-page-plus catchall spending bill even though they were sought by the PMA Group, a lobbying firm that closed up shop after being raided by the FBI last year. They included money for high-tech firms and colleges in Pennsylvania.
The press has been having a field day with many of the earmarks, so much so that the sponsoring lawmakers felt the need to spend much of Wednesday defending their projects on the Senate floor.
It doesn't help that many of the pet projects sound ridiculous on their face: swine odor research, tattoo removal, the "Mormon cricket," the Polynesian Voyaging Society of Honolulu, the American Lighthouse Foundation.
But sponsors implored their colleagues to look deeper to see that the projects are critically needed.
The $1.8 million dollar earmark for pig odor and manure management research at the University of Iowa was vehemently defended by sponsor Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, saying it addresses a "profoundly serious challenge" in his home state's farm communities. "
"I suppose we'll hear a lot of jokes on David Letterman and Jay Leno and a lot of other people will be making jokes about this money for manure, but keep in mind this is not wasteful or unnecessary or frivolous, this is very important to the daily lives of people in my state and North Carolina and anyplace else that we raise swine," Harkin exclaimed.
Sen Susan Collins, R-Maine, says the American Lighthouse Foundation needs money to keep Maine lighthouses, federal properties, operating.
"These lighthouses perform a vital function for Maine's lobster and fishing industries, as well as for commercial shipping and recreational boaters," Collins said.
"They are critical, active navigation aids," she continued. "I would also note that the American Lighthouse appropriation is a direct investment in federal property, a responsibility that dates to 1789 when the first Congress extended federal funding to lighthouses. This isn't new. This isn't something that the senators from Maine dreamt up when...we were trying to come up with worthy projects. This goes back to the beginning days of our republic."
The $200,000 earmark for a "tattoo-removal violence-outreach program" in Los Angeles is for a removal machine to rid gang members of biased markings that could affect their future lives. "It sounds ridiculous, but it's an important project," said one senior Senate Democratic leadership aide.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, sponsor of the "Mormon cricket" earmark, e-mailed the following statement to FOX News: "This is a very important project and no joking matter to those in the West that have been affected by the infestation of these crickets.
"By any standard, this project is a tremendous success by saving millions of acres of public and private land and potentially saving the $343 million forage crops industry in Utah from devastation.
"These crickets have infested and ravaged many western states damaging crops, critical habitats and grazing lands resulting in serious problems and millions of dollars in damages for farmers and ranchers. This critical funding has helped to reduce the infestation in Utah, Nevada and Idaho to a few hundred thousand acres, where treatment will continue because of these federal dollars."
Sen Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, was clearly riled by the railing against his committee's bill. In an unusually passionate speech for the soft-spoken senator, he used an annual spending bill for the Pentagon to note that earmarks created critical programs, like the F-22, the Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, and the C-17, that have saved the lives of American military personnel and hastened the conclusion of the Iraq war.
"I dare anyone to suggest these are evil projects. It has helped to shorten the war. It has helped to save lives. It will bring back the brave men and women from Iraq...I think these few should remind us that earmarks are not evil," Inouye warned.
Inouye also defended his Polynesian Voyaging Society earmark on Tuesday night, saying the sailing program successfully helps at-risk and disabled youth.
"The voyage is much more than one of miles. It is a voyage of young people discovering they are able to accomplish much more than they thought possible," Inouye said.
But Sen Tom Coburn, R-Okla, who has launched an all-out assault on pork in the bill, has effectively highlighted pet projects as not worthy of federal funding, especially in these depressed economic times.
His effort has been so effective, Senate Democratic leaders have been scrambling throughout the day to shore up votes for the omnibus spending bill and keep members from supporting Coburn's amendments to strip millions in earmarks from the bill.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.