There they go again, attacking the earmarks most members of Congress attach to federal spending bills. This time, at least, President Obama isn’t wholly in the chorus dumping on projects stuck into a $408 billion spending bill he just signed. Often called pork, these items get funded without the usual bureaucratic federal application process. Obama railed against them while campaigning last year and his 2008 Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain is right there griping loudly again.McCain is now Twittering over things like $237,000 for an addition to the Japanese-American Museum in San Jose, which lost a $600,000 state grant because of California’s budget mess and needs the money to finish a partly-built expansion. He also doesn’t like a honey bee factory in Weslaco, Texas or $819,000 for catfish genetics in Alabama.Never mind that honey bees are in short supply and helping them recover from a devastating hive-killer disease will boost food supplies for California and the nation. Never mind that catfish are a major industry in Alabama and anything helping them breed better will be an economic boon.When McCain gripes about these items and a $200,000 earmark to help former gang members in Honolulu remove tattoos threatening to brand them forever with their adolescent folly, he just might be doing his country a disservice.For sure, earmarks do a lot of good in California. It’s not just the Japanese-American Museum grant, arranged by Democratic Reps. Mike Honda of Campbell and Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, but plenty of others.There’s $190,000 for the Emeryville Youth Wellness and Parenting Center, run by the local school district. Another $670,000 to clean up the Mt. Diablo Mercury mine, a toxic site in Contra Costa County. There’s $275,000 for dredging in the Port of Redwood City, keeping a key channel navigable.Another $950,000 will help Long Beach Transit buy low-polluting hybrid buses and $350,000 is set to upgrade the 911 system and other communications at the Los Angeles County sheriff’s station in Cerritos. How about $3.5 million to clean up groundwater contamination in San Gabriel Valley water basins, helping take pressure off other water supplies? Or $1 million for a forensic DNA laboratory in Glendale? And $800,000 for a new air traffic control tower in Palm Springs?Altogether, there are 9,000 such grants nationwide, making up just a small chunk of the federal budget, but doing immense good in almost every congressional district in the nation.One important outfit that probably will never get federal funds without an earmark is the American Indian Healing Center of Whittier, which wants money to help treat its 250 diabetes patients. “We’ve applied for other types of federal grants, but most Native American programs are aimed at reservations and we serve urban Indians,” says John Andrews, the center’s director.”We’re also not eligible for funds from the federal stimulus package, because we don’t now receive any federal aid. Our best hope is an earmark.” Formally known as a special appropriation.Sure, earmarks let senators and House members preen a bit at ribbon-cuttings and pose for photos with giant cardboard checks. Yes, this can help them at reelection time, as the photos and a list of local projects funded make for terrific “I bring home the bacon” ads and mailers. Favoritism also occurs at times.But a lot of constructive projects get funded this way, too, things that don’t have Washington lobbyists behind them and might not make it through all the political and other tests applied by the federal Office of Management and Budget.It’s not as though many congressional members don’t have vetting processes of their own.Rookie Democrat Jackie Speier of San Mateo just set up a committee of prominent local residents to review programs proposed to her. Linda Sanchez, who represents parts of Los Angeles and Orange counties, each year invites proposals for education, transportation, energy conservation, recreation, pre-school and after school programs, senior services and health care, among others.The positive effects of these grants might not always be obvious to someone like McCain, given to ridiculing things he doesn’t know about. In that, he’s like Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader whose mockery several years ago killed federal funding of the Mountain View-based Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a project that has helped locate earth-like planets, develop new techniques of radio astronomy and more.Like McCain, who belittles an earmark for astronomical research in Hawaii, where the world’s largest array of optical telescopes – anchored by the University of California’s Keck Observatory – sits atop the Mauna Kea volcano, Reid scoffed at searching for knowledge among the stars.His ridicule and McCain’s are often based on ignorance, not an uncommon quality among politicians.The bottom line is that earmarks do a lot of good for California and other states. Perfect, no. But as with other traditions, eliminate them, and you can bet problems will arise that soon show why they became a tradition in the first place.
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