D.C. delegation brings home bacon


POSTED: Monday, March 16, 2009

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

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 federal spending bill.

“;I ask the senator from Hawaii,”; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said to Democrat Daniel Inouye on the Senate floor recently. “;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 Rep. Mazie Hirono secured is anything but a throwaway 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? Do earmarks reflect national interests—or only those of a member's district or state?

This discussion flared up earlier this month when a small bipartisan band of senators, led by McCain, held up a bill that doles out money for the 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 recession. McCain went so far as to describe the provisions as “;evil.”;

Congress approved the 1,132-page, $408 billion measure. On March 4, 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 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.

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

For example, 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.

“;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 ear-marker by far has been Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who by himself sponsored $46.4 million of specific items in the spending measure, according to the Washington D.C.-based watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Even Republican Gov. Linda Lingle has lauded him for his prowess at directing money to the state.

Among Inouye's earmarks were $238,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, another favorite target of critics; $9.3 million for Army Corps of Engineer 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; Sen. Daniel Akaka authored $835,000; and Abercrombie's total was $760,000.

In all, Hawaii will receive $165 million this year from 113 earmarks, 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 rate in the country, the group found.