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Earmark reform could challenge Hawaii institutions


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POSTED: Saturday, March 07, 2009

SEN. Daniel Inouye endured the wrath of Sen. John McCain this week for earmarks contained in a $410 billion spending bill but continued to defend the practice that brings federal dollars to Hawaii. Inouye might need to change his strategy to abide by guidelines to be issued by President Barack Obama on reforming the widely scorned practice.

Last year's Republican presidential nominee has long complained about politicians' insertion of funds for parochial projects into large spending bills. McCain complained loudly on the Senate floor on Tuesday and, as chairman of the Appropriations Committee and usher of the main bill, a combined holdover of several bills from last year, Inouye was closest to the tirade.

“;All I want to say is that earmarks are not evil,”; Inouye responded. “;Yes, there are some that are questionable, and there will come a time to do that (reform).”; He did not respond to McCain's attack on specific earmarks that had been penned by the powerful Hawaii Democrat.

“;Why do we need $2 million to promote astronomy in Hawaii when unemployment is going up and the stock market is tanking?”; McCain asked as he looked at Inouye. McCain was referring to an earmark for the Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii on nine acres above the University of Hawaii's Hilo campus.

Inouye did not reply, but the facility's Web site credits him with helping “;secure federal funding at every step from planning to construction”; of the $28 million facility. Funded mainly by NASA, the center provides “;education that bridges astronomy and culture in a way that will inspire Hawaii's children to seek a career in science,”; Inouye remarked at the facility's opening in 2001.

McCain also chided Inouye for the bill's $280,000 check to the Polynesian Voyaging Society “;when people are out of a job!”; Inouye has directed federal dollars to the society for years, praising it for having “;renewed interest in maritime exploration and reawakened native Hawaiian pride in environmental awareness and ocean stewardship.”; The society's Hokule'a has made numerous trips across the Pacific and is planning for a round-the-world voyage three years from now at a cost of millions of dollars.

In a presidential debate last September, Obama pledged that “;absolutely, we need earmark reform. And when I'm president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending unwisely.”; However, congressional authorization of a line-time veto in 1992 was struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later.

Worthwhile educational and cultural institutions are typical recipients of earmarks dished out by Republicans and Democrats alike. Unable to sustain themselves, they would be most vulnerable to earmark reform, however it might be shaped.