'Wasteful' spending in Washington considered vital program at home


POSTED: Thursday, March 12, 2009

One man's pork is another man's bacon. Just ask Kaiu Kimura.

For the last week, Kimura's Imiloa Astronomy Center, at the base of Mauna Kea on the Big Island, has been maligned by critics who spotlighted it among thousands of what they say are wasteful “;pork-barrel”; provisions in a huge omnibus federal spending bill.

“;I ask the senator from Hawaii,”; U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said to Democrat Daniel Inouye on the Senate floor last week. “;Why do we need $2 million to promote astronomy in Hawaii when unemployment is going up and the stock market is tanking?”;

But to Kimura, the $2 million “;earmark”; that Inouye and U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, secured is anything but a throw-away line about profligate spending. Rather, she insists, the money will help create enthusiasm for science among native Hawaiian children who have few educational opportunities outside of school.

“;Our mission is about growing the next generation,”; said Kimura, associate director of the center. The 3-year-old center's programs will affect “;their lives in ways that will inspire them to pursue not only careers in science, but careers in whatever it is they are interested in.”;

The debate over Imiloa is symbolic of a controversy that occasionally arises in Washington: Should members of Congress designate money for specific expenditures that the president has not requested? Are all earmarks bad? Do they reflect national interests — or only those of a member's district or state?

This discussion flared up last week when a small bipartisan band of senators, led by McCain, held up a bill that doles out money for the current federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The critics argued that its almost $8 billion in earmarks, some 8,570 of them sponsored by members of both parties, was wasteful in a time of recession. McCain went so far as to describe the provisions as “;evil.”;

Congress approved the 1,132-page, $408 billion measure. Yesterday, President Barack Obama signed it, saying earmarks have often been used as “;a vehicle for waste, fraud and abuse”; or were inserted at the last minute to satisfy legislators' political or personal agendas.

But he also said the provisions can support “;worthy projects.”; He called on Congress to be more open about them and to set stricter rules on their use.

Over the years, Hawaii's four-member congressional delegation has reveled in bringing home the bacon.

For example, U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie issued a press release last month after the House passed the spending bill, trumpeting the earmarks he helped get approved, including $20 million for Honolulu's rail project and $47.5 million for native Hawaiian education and health programs.

“;I'll leave it to the people of Hawaii to decide”; whether earmarks for a mass transit system, education, health care and other programs “;are pork,”; he said.

Hawaii's most prolific earmarker by far has been Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who by himself sponsored $46.4 million in specific items in the spending measure, according to the Washington D.C.-based watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Inouye is the only Hawaii member of Congress to sit on a House or Senate appropriations panel. Even Republican Gov. Linda Lingle has lauded him for his prowess at directing money to the state, and prodded him to do more in the area of energy independence.

Among Inouye's earmarks were $238,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, another favorite target of critics; $9.3 million for Army Corps of Engineers projects; $5.7 million for an H-1 offramp; and $17.7 million for sea turtle, coastal management and other ocean programs.

Hirono sponsored nearly $1.5 million in earmarks by herself; U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, authored $835,000, and Abercrombie's total was $760,000.

In all, Hawaii will receive $165 million this year from 113 earmarked expenditures, whether sponsored by members of Congress from Hawaii or other lawmakers, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. That is $128 per Hawaii resident, the third-highest ratio in the country, the group found.

Further, each Hawaii lawmaker signed onto many more earmarks that affect one or more states. Inouye was a lead or co-sponsor of $225.1 million in such provisions, Taxpayers for Common Sense said. Hirono signed onto $138.7 million of those; Akaka, $132.8 million; and Abercrombie, $111.4 million.

That might sound like a lot of money, but lawmakers note that the total amount of earmarks was a tiny fraction of the overall spending measure.

They also point out that since the Constitution gives Congress near-total responsibility for appropriating money, the president's proposed annual budget cannot be the last word on federal spending.


Bringing home the bacon

Earmarks sponsored by the entire Hawaii delegation:

» $20 million for Honolulu's rail transit project
» $7 million for the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge
» $1.4 million for brown tree snake, varroa mite and invasive-species suppression programs
» $14.2 million for native Hawaiian regional health clinics
Selected earmarks from one or more delegation member:
» $2 million for University of Hawaii research into the Hawaiian archipelago (Abercrombie, Inouye)
» $475,000 for a new community center in Kailua-Kona (Akaka)
» $333,000 to the Hawaii branch of the National Kidney Foundation, for facilities and equipment (Abercrombie and Hirono)
» $4 million for job training programs at Maui Community College (Inouye)
» $95,000 for Hawaii Public Radio for music education programs (Abercrombie)
» $300,000 for upgrades to the Honolulu Police Department's forensics lab (Abercrombie and Inouye)
» $1 million for crime prevention and outreach efforts offered by the Boys and Girls Club of Hawaii (Inouye)

Source: Taxpayers for Common Sense