Apr 07 2008

Worthy earmarks?

Tuscaloosa News

By Tommy Stevenson

 ‘Pig Book' ranks Sen. Shelby near top in ‘pork barrel projects' Somewhere along the line the phrase, 'pork barrel projects,' morphed into the less crude euphemism 'earmarks,' although both terms refer to the money for specific projects powerful lawmakers bring home for their constituents.

We like to call the money 'pork' so we can then say that a powerful politician is 'bringing home the bacon.' But I have yet to see anyone say a legislator or congressman is good at 'bringing home the ears.'

In any event, an organization called Citizens Against Government Waste made a big splash last week with its annual publication of the 'Pig Book,' in which it says it has identified $17.2 billion in earmarks inserted in the 2008 federal budget by members of Congress.

The organization, which bills itself as 'America's No. 1 taxpayer watchdog' garnered coverage on most of the network and cable news channels Wednesday. Its report digs deep into those earmarks, listing more than 12,000 such projects. It points the finger at not only egregious examples ('bridges to nowhere' and the like) but also at the top earmarkers.

And who do we find third on the list of earmarkers? Our own U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, a Tuscaloosa Republican who has been in Congress since 1979 and a senator since 1985.

It's a close third, too, with Shelby earmarking $469.4 million for 206 projects in the fiscal year that began last October, just behind the $469.4 million earmarked by Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens.

Stevens, infamous for the $200 million- plus bridge from the mainland to a scarcely populated island a couple of years ago, had 150 earmarks this year.

But both of them trail far behind the leader in earmarks. That would be Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who brought home $892.2 million for 245 project this year.

I have to admit being somewhat of an agnostic when it comes to earmarks, however. As the old saying goes, one man's pork is another's vitally needed local project. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was Shelby's first press secretary after he was elected to the U.S. House as a Democrat in 1978. I know for a fact that some of the federal largesse directed back home is indeed justified.)

The Citizens Against Government Waste also is somewhat suspect in its conclusions and methodology. It seems to exist, Brigadoon-like, once a year when it releases its Pig Book to great media fanfare. If you go to its Web site, which I admit has some fascinating and extensive data, you will see the organization also is heavy into fundraising for itself and that its not-so-hidden agenda coincides with the lower-taxes-at-all-costs folks.

I suspect the CAGW is what is known as an 'Astroturf' organization, in that the 'citizens' in its title don't really exist (like grass on a field with artificial turf). I wouldn't be surprised if the group is just a small group of activists/wonks obsessed with making Congress look bad once a year.

There also were reports last week that the CAGW has ties to the Republican Party, which is ironic as most of the top 'porkers' this year are members of the GOP.

In any event, I looked over the CAGW's list of Shelby's projects for this year — a list that was 30 pages long when I printed it out — and to tell the truth, I did not find anything outrageous, although if you go to the organization's Web site, you may disagree.

Shelby spread money all over the state, to cities, towns, counties, and community, as well as to state and federal agencies, some of them not actually in Alabama.

His largest earmark, for instance, was for $45 million to the FBI for its Terrorist Explosives Device Analytical Center, at a location undisclosed by the CAGW.

His smallest grants were for $47,000. They went to the city of Talladega for its Drug Enforcement Initiative and to the 'A Child is Missing' program in Montgomery.

As anyone knows who has seen Shelby Hall on the University of Alabama campus and the flattening of much of downtown Tuscaloosa for a grand new federal courthouse on University Boulevard as the centerpiece of a downtown revitalization project, Shelby has been kind to his hometown with his earmarks.

In this year's budget, for instance, Shelby has earmarked $4.1 million for the 'City of Tuscaloosa Downtown Revitalization Project, Twenty First Avenue Phase I and University Boulevard Phase III.' He has earmarked another $4.9 million for the Army Corps of Engineers to construct a new headquarters downstream on the Black Warrior River from its current location north of Jack Warner Parkway so the riverfront can be developed commercially and by the city.

Shelby is unapologetic about his ability to earmark money for his hometown and state.

'I believe I have a responsibility to support and advocate for projects that are good for our nation and for Alabama,' he said in an e-mail last week. 'The Tuscaloosa Downtown Revitalization, funding for the University of Alabama and the Tuscaloosa bypass are all examples of the types of projects this group referenced — projects that are clearly meritorious and important to our state.