The Inland Northwest is in line for some share of about $285 million in earmarks in the massive spending bill Congress passed and President Obama signed last week.
From tens of millions of dollars to improve the salmon runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers to $50,000 to research methamphetamine at Washington State University, the Omnibus Appropriations Bill has specific amounts of money added to the huge spending package by representatives and senators, or the administration.
Worried about viruses hurting the grape crops? There’s $223,000 to study them. Or maybe the prospect of cyst nematodes eating your potato crop is keeping you up at night. There’s $349,000 to study that and $245,000 to study jointed goatgrass.
Think Wenatchee’s Pangborn Memorial Airport could be a little bigger? There’s $736,000 set aside to help with the expansion. Lewiston’s wastewater system would get $338,000 for improvements. Spokane’s Northeast Community Center would get $475,000 for its planned expansion.
There’s money to manage sage grouse in Idaho, buy land near Lake Chelan and along the Columbia Gorge, detect and prevent diabetes, buy equipment at the pediatric unit of a Richland hospital, operate dams and build fish hatcheries around the region. In all, some $285 million will be spent on more than 100 programs or projects, some of them solely in the Inland Northwest, others spread across several states but with a component in Eastern Washington or North Idaho.
The money comes through earmarks, which means a member of Congress or the president – George W. Bush or Barack Obama – asked that a specific project and a specific amount be added to the budget.
For some in Congress, earmarks are the symbol of everything that’s wrong with the budget process. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee for president last year, is a longtime critic of earmarks and denounced the Omnibus Spending Bill this month when it came up for a vote. It contained 9,000 earmarks, he said, spread over 775 pages of text that accompanied a 1,122-page bill.
“Members who question the merits of specific earmarks are unable to offer an amendment to specifically strike them,” McCain said. “They are wasteful and they should not be funded, period.”
He derided scores of projects, ranging from studying tattoo removal in Los Angeles to improving the genetics of switchgrass – cyst nematodes and jointed goatgrass were spared a mention – in denouncing the bill.
But Congress has far more supporters of earmarks than detractors.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, defended the system as a way to match federal money to local needs. It’s easy to pick out projects that sound funny and make them an easy target on the cable news shows, she said.
“I reject the notion that each and every bit of spending we direct is corrupt or wasteful,” Murray said. In response to McCain’s speech, she listed several projects in Washington state and the groups or agencies that have presented legitimate concerns.
“I don’t want to leave decisions about what is best for Washington up to a bureaucrat in an agency who has never been to or even heard of Walla Walla, Pasco or Blaine – and who has no ideas of what those communities are,” she said.
Murray has supported efforts to reform the process in recent years, and she supports the new rules for 2010, which require members to post their requests on the Internet when the bill is before the subcommittee, and which reduce the amount that can be spent on earmarks to half the 2006 levels.
Murray voted for the Omnibus Bill, as did Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Idaho’s two Republican senators, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, voted no. But the bill contained 50 earmarks that Crapo had added, either by himself or in concert with other members of Congress, for projects that are wholly or partly in Idaho. As a newly elected freshman, Risch wasn’t part of the appropriations process last year that put the bill together.
Crapo didn’t vote against the bill because of the earmarks, spokesman Lindsay Nothern said, but because the overall spending was up 8 percent over the original appropriations bills that were shoved together into a single massive spending bill. Idaho’s senior senator believes the earmark process needs reform, but not elimination.
The earmarks he submitted “represent worthy state and local projects,” Crapo said in a prepared statement. “It is important that there be accountability in the congressional budget and funding processes.”
Crapo said he tries to make sure that any earmark he submits is fiscally responsible, consistent with state priorities, appropriate for the federal government to fund and provides a national benefit.
Last spring, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers announced she would not submit earmarks for projects in her Eastern Washington district. She joined a Republican effort to “swear off” the requests for a year as part of an effort to reform the process. Later that fall, McMorris Rodgers was named the leader of the GOP’s select committee on earmark reform, which is still studying the problem.
But neither of those moves meant special funding requests for Eastern Washington constituencies, from cities and towns to university researchers to road projects and homeless shelters, were left out of the budget. They were submitted, instead, by other members of the Washington delegation who continued to use the practice.
This year, while she studies ways to reform the process, McMorris Rodgers will submit earmark requests for projects that her staff has reviewed and found to be good candidates for federal money. She hasn’t formally announced the change, a spokesman said.
But any earmarks she submits will be listed on her congressional Web site, a practice that Murray and Crapo also follow with the projects they submit.