Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Year After $213 Million In Earmarks, He's Against Them

Earmarks -- those endearing Congressional plums that brought us "The Bridge To No Where" -- sort of slipped under the radar of the recent news cycles out of Washington this past week.

Democratic House members have pledged to not submit earmarks for for-profit projects. Republicans have one-upped that by pledging a ban on all earmarks for a year.

Earmarks are the fast track for a Congressman to return favors to his district under the euphemism of returning back home tax dollars paid to the feds. It avoids the scrutiny, cumbersome and painful process required for federal spending through the House Appropriations Committee.

Except for the abuses we all remember John McCain citing during his 2008 presidential run, I must confess I'm rather ambivalent on the subject. It strikes at the heart of representative (lower case) republicanism that works well in our government. It's an uneven playing field, however, because some congressmen are more aggressive playing the game than others.

It just so happens one of the leading Republicans considering earmarks a dirty word and emblematic of a broken system is Darrell Issa, my congressmen in the 49th Congressional with home offices in Vista, Calif.

In 2006, Issa was one of the first House member to publicly post all his earmarks on his Web site. In 2008, he said he would restrict his earmark requests to only public projects. This week as a ranking minority leader of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he joined nine other Republican leaders in the never-again pledge, or until the next session, or until Congress controls spending, or all of the above.

I am here to report that my rep in Congress is a man of his word. No earmarks for 2010. I then decided to look at his earmark requests for 2009

Tee hee. Tee hee. He submitted 21 projects for $213,767,000.

The 49th covers all of northern San Diego County and parts of southern Riverside County. It is a classic gerrymandered district guaranteeing a Republican victory unless he pulls off something dumb as did Rep. Duke Cunningham several years ago in the 50th and as a result is still serving time in the pokey.

I reviewed all 21 earmark projects Issa submitted for 2009 and found two that made me feel queasy. Since Issa is a straight-shooter I can't for the life of me understand why his requests were not funneled through the regular channels. His office did not return my calls asking whether all the projects were approved so I am only assuming they were since he posted them. Another caveat: Some of these listed items are continuing projects requiring annual appropriations.

  • $110.3 million for a new federal courthouse in downtown San Diego. 
  • $6M for an integrated communications system for 15 fire districts.
  • $3.5M for upgrading the communications system of all county law enforcement agencies.
  • $500K for a gang suppression unit for the city of Oceanside.
  • $250K to equip a new emergency operations center in Lake Elsinore.
  • $13M for a 100-year flood control channel for the cities of Murietta and Temecula.
  • $7.2M for the first phase of the San Luis Rey Valley flood control channel.
  • $2M for potable water and desalter for a water district in the city of Perris.
  • $2M for a water reclamation project for Rancho California, a seniors community.
  • $1M to complete final design of a water system for Camp Pendleton Marine Base.
  • $355K to supplement an open space, land-use study in Riverside County.
  • $45M reforestation of areas prone to wildfires. 
  • $1.6M to prepare exiting  military doctors and nurses for the private sector.
  • $1M to build a new community health center in Vista.
  • $1M to build and replace a health clinic in Oceanside.
  • $8M to improve a bottleneck between the I-15 and I-215 freeways.
  • $5M widen a section of State 76 in Oceanside.
  • $3.1M for a transit center serving new private development in Oceanside.
  • $2M to widen a street in Vista.
  • $1M to study expanding a  small airstrip in Temecula.
  •  $500K to renovate and expand the Fallbrook Boys and Girls Club.
It is only the last two items that might be considered shaky, especially from a congressman who prides himself on pinching pennies.

I find it hypercritical earmarks for health clinics were included in his 2009 requests yet he plans to vote against the health reform package which includes money for identical  projects.



I applaud Mr. Issa for his transparency and only wish all Congressmen and Senators do the same. In his case, earmarks lose the sting and bad rap they probably don't deserve.  Of course, it also begs the question why he continued requesting earmarks as recently as four years ago when he was publicly speaking against them as part of our broken government.  The remaining thorn in my side remains the most fundamental dilemma facing federal appropriations. That is, why should a taxpayer in the 1st Congressional District of New York pay part of a $1 million tab to study the merits of an airstrip in Temecula, Cailf.?

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