Hawaii delegation proud of earmarks
By John Yaukey
Advertiser Washington Bureau
By John Yaukey
WASHINGTON — While other senators spent last week arguing over the evils or merits of special project funding they stuffed into a $410 billion spending bill, Hawai'i's lawmakers have happily boasted about their take, which looks to be considerable.
U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was expected to be among the top beneficiaries of the so-called omnibus spending bill.
And he is.
But an analysis of earmarks by Taxpayers for Common Sense found that second-term U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat, led the 435-member House of Representatives with $138.6 million in pet projects — or earmarks — in large part because they were co-sponsored with Inouye.
In fourth place was Democratic U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, with $111.4 million.
Hirono was traveling Friday, but her spokeswoman, Jaclyn Zimmerman, was ebullient.
"We are very excited about that," she said. "Hawai'i should be delighted at this. The congresswoman was delighted when I told her about this over the phone."
Inouye was linked to 106 special requests totaling more than $225 million, eighth among senators in dollar amount, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka had a hand in about $134 million in earmarks, mostly in conjunction with other lawmakers.
Since many of the Hawai'i delegation's requests were submitted along with Inouye, it would be a mistake to add them to get a total for Hawai'i.
Those requests include $20 million for a commuter rail transit project in Honolulu, $33 million for Native Hawaiian education and $14 million for Native Hawaiian healthcare.
Barring any surprises, the bill should pass the Senate early this week, and President Obama is expected to sign it soon afterward. The House passed its version of the omnibus bill Feb. 25, with both of Hawai'i's members voting in favor.
It would fund most government programs — except defense, homeland security and veterans benefits — through fiscal 2009, which ends Sept. 30.
The bill contains about 8,000 earmarks, but they make up less than 2 percent of the total.
Still, some lawmakers were not happy with the earmarks, and equally displeased with Inouye, who managed much of the debate for Senate Democrats.
At times, Inouye endured verbal assaults from the Senate's champion of budget reform, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.
"We're going to spend $2 million for the promotion of astronomy in Hawai'i," McCain said, referring to one of the earmarks, as he leered at Inouye. "I ask the senator from Hawai'i: Why do we need $2 million to promote astronomy in Hawai'i?"
Unruffled, Inouye rattled off provisions for healthcare, housing and scientific research.
"I dare anyone to suggest these are evil products," he said. "These should remind us earmarks are not evil."
Still, Obama has made it clear he opposes them.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said late last week she would work with Obama to examine how Congress handles spending for special projects.
It raises the question: Could Capitol Hill's entrenched earmark culture — a culture that Inouye has championed for years — be in trouble?
The reformers pushing to eradicate earmarks will find plenty of pushback from Hawai'i's delegation.
"Some self-appointed government watchdog groups in Washington consider the investment of public funds for public purposes to be pork," Abercrombie said after House passage of the spending bill. "I'll leave it to the people of Hawai'i to decide if a modern mass-transit system, education, healthcare, energy independence, adequate housing, effective tools for law enforcement and clean water are pork."