Business as usual
Mass. delegation, others pile on the pet projects
WASHINGTON - Despite vows by President Obama to curtail earmarks, all 12 members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation are among dozens of lawmakers stuffing a massive spending bill full of what critics call pork-barrel projects.
The Bay State lawmakers have inserted provisions ranging from $30 million to improve commuter rail service to Fitchburg, to a $254,000 project for a local study of obesity, to $190,000 to renovate a Stockbridge theater, a Globe review found.
The projects are among more than 8,500 across the country totaling $7.7 billion - up 3 percent from last year - that were included in the $410 billion spending bill the House approved yesterday, according to the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense. The House rejected a Republican bid to strip the earmarks out of the legislation, which is to fund government operations from early March through the end of September.
The earmarks were inserted despite President Obama's statement in his speech Tuesday night to Congress that he was "proud" there wasn't a single earmark in the separate $787 billion stimulus plan and the possibility that he might veto legislation loaded with pet projects.
Despite the criticism, many members of Congress in both parties defend the use of earmarks as one of the most effective ways to get their fair share of federal tax money for their constituents. In the case of Massachusetts, Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, as well as all 10 House members, are given credit in the legislation for inserting earmarks.
"These are my earmarks. I'm very proud of them. They are all strongly supported by the people I represent," said Representative Barney Frank. The Newton Democrat and powerful chairman of the House Financial Services Committee backed earmarks that included $935,000 for a bus terminal in Fall River, and $475,000 for a community center in New Bedford.
In a case of several senators working on behalf of another, Kerry and several of his colleagues inserted an earmark for $5.8 million for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, to be built next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. The institute had also received $20 million in private funding as of last month. A spokesman said Kennedy did not ask for the funding but is "appreciative" of his colleagues' efforts. Separately, Kerry also engineered an earmark of $22 million for an addition to the Kennedy library, according to his staff.
Earmarks emerged as a major issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, symbolized by the criticism of Alaska's "bridge to nowhere," which eventually was canceled. Responding to the criticism, Congress kept the practice but required disclosure of the names of members who seek particular earmarks. As a result, the bill now before Congress provides a window into the way members insert specific projects and into their cost.
Kennedy and Kerry took credit for a number of projects, including $950,000 for construction of a ferry dock on Long Island in Boston Harbor, $285,000 for "downtown streetscape improvements" in Haverhill, and $190,000 for the renovation of the Berkshire Theater Festival facilities in Stockbridge.
"We stand behind every penny," Kerry spokeswoman Jodi Seth said yesterday, stressing that the process has been "transparent."
Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, is among those who believe that earmarks are a worthy use of congressional power. He criticized the decision to leave them out of the stimulus bill because he said that left too much decision-making in the hands of state officials who are receiving large pools of federal money.
"I didn't run for office on the presumption that I don't know anything about my district," Capuano said. "If you don't have some earmarks, all the decisions are left to the executives. There is no legislative input."
Capuano inserted a number of earmarks, including $850,000 for a parking garage in Chelsea, $450,000 for the Whittier Street Health Center in Boston, and $254,000 to Tufts University to study obesity.
The biggest transportation earmark for Massachusetts is $30 million for the improvement of the Fitchburg commuter rail line, a project designed to cut the maximum trip time to Boston from about 90 minutes to 60 minutes, according to a statement by Representative John Olver, an Amherst Democrat. It was not clear last night how much the Massachusetts projects totaled.
The spending bill passed yesterday in the House on a largely party-line 245-178 vote, with all 10 Massachusetts representatives voting for it. Sixteen Republicans supported the bill, and 20 Democrats opposed it. The Senate is likely to vote on the bill next week.
Some members of Congress - most notably, last year's Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain - have refused to ask for earmarks. McCain this week has blasted his colleagues in Congress for continuing the practice and called on Obama to veto any legislation that has earmarks.
The new president could be put in an awkward position by the passage of a spending bill with so many earmarks on the day after he addressed Congress and the day before he outlines his first budget. "I'm proud that we passed a recovery plan free of earmarks and I want to pass a budget next year that ensures that each dollar we spend reflects only our most important national priorities," he told the national TV audience.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, asked at a briefing yesterday whether Obama would veto a bill with earmarks, declined to give a direct answer, instead stressing that "there's great concern" about earmarks. "Without having looked specifically at a piece of legislation, I'm hesitant to throw out the word - that four-letter word veto."
House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio delivered a passionate speech on the House floor yesterday against the bill, citing the profusion of earmarks, even though some were inserted by his fellow Republicans.
"The president campaigned against this type of legislation, these type of earmarks," Boehner said, urging Obama to veto the measure. "I just think this is out of control. This is exactly what the American people want us to change."
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the earmarks should be stopped because "the funding decisions are being made on political muscle rather than project merit." He said that funding for a district in Massachusetts represented by a veteran congressman might mean that money is not going to more worthy projects in districts elsewhere represented by a newcomer.
But James McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, said that earmarks are not pork, but are "nourishment." McGovern's earmarks included $665,000 to replace buses at the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority and $475,000 for a neighborhood revitalization project in Worcester.
"It creates jobs, it helps people," McGovern said. "The earmarks I fought for are to help colleges and universities, to help hospitals with emergency rooms. . . . I think I know more about my district than some faceless bureaucrat in Washington, D.C."
Michael Kranish can be reached at email@example.com