Peoria Journal Star

June 26, 2006

LaHood defends earmarked project
Says money for technology center would create jobs

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - When one conservative Republican tried to delete an earmark sponsored by House Speaker Dennis Hastert earlier this week, Rep. Ray LaHood was astounded.

"Do you know who earmarked this money?" LaHood, R-Peoria, asked before launching a vigorous defense of the project on the House floor.

The $2.5 million earmark for the Illinois Technology Transition Center in West Chicago helps develop new technologies that create jobs, including some in his hometown of Peoria, LaHood told his fellow lawmakers on the House floor.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., had questioned whether the federal government should be providing aid to the private sector in the defense appropriations bill for fiscal 2007.

"We ought to be spending money in the defense bill on equipment, on helmets, on body armor, on other things, rather than subsidizing the technological center in one particular state," Flake said.

LaHood said the center has aided the Peoria-based Firefly Energy, an offshoot of Caterpillar Inc., which is developing a new lightweight and longer-lasting battery that it hopes to sell the Army.

"The reason that the speaker asked for this kind of set-aside is because it helps all of us in Illinois," LaHood said. "It creates not only opportunities in central Illinois, but all over the state."

A member of the House Appro-Committee, LaHood included $5 million for Firefly Energy in the House bill. Firefly Energy received $2.5 million in earmarks this current fiscal year. Caterpillar would receive $75.2 million, if the Senate doesn't make changes to the bill. The firm, based in Peoria, received $26 million in earmarks this year.

LaHood, who recently was named to the defense appropriations subcommittee, also was able to include $1 million for PeoriaNext, $3 million for the 182nd Airlift Wing for a secure computer network, and $2.5 million for Memorial Healthcare System in Springfield for computerized intravenous infusion pumps to help prevent medication errors.

Until last January, Washington, D.C., lobbyists for Caterpillar, Firefly Energy and Memorial Healthcare served on LaHood's campaign fund-raising committee. LaHood has denied any connection between their fund raising and the earmarks he requested for their clients.

Rep. Lane Evans, D-Rock Island, also secured funding to help attract business to the unused portions of the Rock Island Arsenal, but the exact amount couldn't immediately be verified.

The earmarking system has come under increasing scrutiny since former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., pleaded guilty last year to accepting bribes for earmarks. Hastert's earmarks also have generated some controversy with the recent disclosure by The Sunlight Foundation, a not-for-profit group, that Hastert reaped a profit of at least $1.5 million on a land deal about five miles from a proposed highway for which he secured more than $200 million in federal funding last year. Hastert has denied a connection. The technology transition center is operated by the Illinois Technology Development Alliance, whose president is former Hastert aide Tom Thornton. Thornton couldn't be reached for comment.

Despite the controversy over them, earmarks seem to have retained their popularity in the current appropriations season. In recent weeks, Flake has tried unsuccessfully to delete 31 earmarked projects - special requests by members of Congress for their districts - worth more than $200 million in four spending bills.

But earmark critics are praising Flake's efforts.

"He's giving a voice to millions of taxpayers who are sick and tired of standard pork barrel politics in Washington," said Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "His amendments, while they may not have initial political success, have been absolutely successful in that he's giving a voice to people who haven't been heard about Congress' big-spending ways."

Flake acknowledged that he didn't know that the speaker had sponsored the earmark before he offered his amendment to strike it. After he found out, he decided that if he withdrew the amendment, "I would be looked to favoring one particularly powerful member of my party," Flake told LaHood on the House floor. His amendment failed on a voice vote.

The $427 billion defense appropriations bill passed 407-19 by the House Tuesday night includes $5 billion worth of earmarks. That's $1 billion less that last year's House bill and $2.7 billion below what the House-Senate conference committee agreed on last year, according to priations Committee, LaHood included $5 million for Firefly Energy in the House bill. Firefly Energy received $2.5 million in earmarks this current fiscal year. Caterpillar would receive $75.2 million, if the Senate doesn't make changes to the bill. The firm, based in Peoria, received $26 million in earmarks this year.

LaHood, who recently was named to the defense appropriations subcommittee, also was able to include $1 million for PeoriaNext, $3 million for the 182nd Airlift Wing for a secure computer network, and $2.5 million for Memorial Healthcare System in Springfield for computerized intravenous infusion pumps to help prevent medication errors.

Until last January, Washington, D.C., lobbyists for Caterpillar, Firefly Energy and Memorial Healthcare served on LaHood's campaign fund-raising committee. LaHood has denied any connection between their fund raising and the earmarks he requested for their clients.

Rep. Lane Evans, D-Rock Island, also secured funding to help attract business to the unused portions of the Rock Island Arsenal, but the exact amount couldn't immediately be verified.

Controversial system

The earmarking system has come under increasing scrutiny since former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., pleaded guilty last year to accepting bribes for earmarks. Hastert's earmarks also have generated some controversy with the recent disclosure by The Sunlight Foundation, a not-for-profit group, that Hastert reaped a profit of at least $1.5 million on a land deal about five miles from a proposed highway for which he secured more than $200 million in federal funding last year. Hastert has denied a connection. The technology transition center is operated by the Illinois Technology Development Alliance, whose president is former Hastert aide Tom Thornton. Thornton couldn't be reached for comment.

Despite the controversy, earmarks seem to have retained their popularity in the current appropriations season. In recent weeks, Flake has tried unsuccessfully to delete 31 earmarked projects - special requests by members of Congress for their districts - worth more than $200 million in four spending bills.

But earmark critics are praising Flake's efforts.

"He's giving a voice to millions of taxpayers who are sick and tired of standard pork barrel politics in Washington," said Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "His amendments, while they may not have initial political success, have been absolutely successful in that he's giving a voice to people who haven't been heard about Congress' big-spending ways."

Flake acknowledged that he didn't know that the speaker had sponsored the earmark before he offered his amendment to strike it. After he found out, he decided that if he withdrew the amendment, "I would be looked to favoring one particularly powerful member of my party," Flake told LaHood on the House floor. His amendment failed on a voice vote.

Efforts to reduce earmarks

The $427 billion defense appropriations bill passed 407-19 by the House Tuesday night includes $5 billion worth of earmarks. That's $1 billion less than last year's House bill and $2.7 billion below what the House-Senate conference committee agreed on last year, according to

a committee news release.

"I believe Flake's efforts are having little or no effect, but I do believe he is doing (it) out of principle," LaHood wrote in an e-mail.

While he hasn't voted for any of Flake's amendments to delete earmarks, LaHood wrote: "I hope he continues his efforts as it gives us an opportunity to highlight earmarks that have provided funds for important programs, ideas and projects."

Meanwhile, LaHood and other area Republican lawmakers including Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Morris, on Thursday voted to give the president a line-item veto. The measure passed 247-172.

"I believe it gives the president the opportunity to eliminate wasteful spending," LaHood wrote. "It worked well in Illinois when used correctly."

However, Flake, who also supported the line-item veto, didn't have such high hopes.

"Given the huge majorities that have defeated my recent amendments to block earmarks in this year's appropriations bills, I must admit that I'm skeptical that Congress will go along with any presidential effort to exercise this authority," Flake said in a statement released by his office.

 

Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or dori.meinert@copleydc.com.