San Diego Union Tribune

April 9, 2007

LETTER FROM WASHINGTON    DANA WILKIE
Point, click to pet projects

Those folks over at the Bush White House are getting downright . . . transparent these days.

Oh, maybe not about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys or the initial reasons for going to war with Iraq.

But last week the president's Office of Management and Budget produced an online list of all those pet spending projects that lawmakers like to slip into the federal budget without a public review or a vote.

 

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It is the first time a government office has offered the public a comprehensive database listing earmarks in this manner. Four clicks on this Web site and you're looking at the $270,000 that went to the city of Santee for the region's Natural Community Conservation Planning program. One official at the watchdog group known as Taxpayers for Common Sense effused that “this is a fun tool!”

We don't usually see that kind of enthusiasm around here. At least, not about the federal budget.

The database (www.whitehouse.gov/omb) is searchable. It's downloadable. You can trace earmarks by state or federal agency. You can unearth details such as the agency, bureau and account that the earmark came from, as well as the certifying official. You get a description of the earmark, the name of the recipient and a citation of where the earmark can be found in legislation.

The site lists 13,496 earmarks totaling $19 billion. Almost $1.7 billion of that money went to California under 1,182 separate earmarks – the most for any state.

 

MOTIVE FOR MOUSE PLAY

There is a bit of politics involved: Some say the database is Bush's way to challenge the new Democratic-controlled Congress on the long-cherished earmarking practice, which allows lawmakers to bring home money that gets the attention, and perhaps the votes, of folks in the district.

It was the earmarking process that led to the fall of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the former Rancho Santa Fe congressman now in prison for steering federal money to defense contractors in exchange for bribes.

In his State of the Union address this year, Bush called on the new Congress to cut the number and amount of earmarks in half, from a record $19 billion in fiscal 2005.

“You didn't vote them into law,” he said then. “I didn't sign them into law. Yet they are treated as if they have the force of law.”

It should also be noted that the administration's database doesn't include earmark requests that came from the White House.

 

SPENDING DIVERSITY

Southern California earmarks range from high-profile (nearly $30 million for clearing out fire-prone brush in the San Bernardino National Forest) to under-the-radar (who knew they were spending $10 million for a main gate at the North Island Naval Air Station?)

They are family-oriented: ($99,000 for the children's collection at the National City Public Library) and more adult-oriented ($79,999 for mental health services at the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center).

They cover those things you might discuss at the dinner table ($149,000 to help University City seniors stay in their own homes) and those you probably wouldn't ($962,000 to improve the Solana Beach sewer system.)

They have your education in mind: nearly $400,000 to create a nursing program at California State University; and $98,000 for science equipment for Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College.

Boy, and then there's all that dough for defense contractors: Lockheed Martin (nearly $1 million to develop algorithms that locate marine mammals to get the creatures away from Navy sonar systems); Swath Ocean Systems LLC ($4.8 million for a new vessel called the Aft Tramp Range Retriever Craft); and SAIC (nearly $5 million for the “Joint Readiness Training Center Instrumentation System,” or JRTCIS for you acronym types).

And if you know any defense contractors wearing a smile, ask if they work for Qualcomm, which got a tidy $20 million to provide secure wireless cell phones for the Defense Department.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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