By PETER GUINTA
Publication Date: 03/16/08
The U.S. Senate in a 71-29 vote last week rejected a proposal that would have ended the congressional tradition of asking for earmarks, a custom that critics say can lead to abuse and public outrage.
Remember the 2005 "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska? U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, wanted $200 million to build a bridge to an island with 50 inhabitants.
The project was canceled in 2007.
Despite the occasional kerfuffle, U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, said Friday that he's a "strong supporter" of congressional earmarks, also called pork-barrel spending, because legislators know what projects should be funded in their district.
"You have to make your case," Mica said about earmarks. "The money doesn't just appear."
Mica is the ranking Republican on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and his district covers St. Johns, Flagler, Volusia, Putnam, Orange and Seminole counties.
In 2007, he requested $27.35 million in earmarks for six different companies in District 7. Of that, $11.3 million was ultimately appropriated.
Raydon Corporation of Daytona Beach, which manufactures up-armored Humvees, electronic tabletop trainers, mobile medical units and complex military communications equipment, among many other defense-oriented products, received the highest earmark request of $18.8 million.
Of the nine earmarks he requested, Raydon was for five of them.
But Raydon received considerably less, although Mica didn't know the precise figure.
"Raydon is the biggest manufacturer and employer in Volusia County, similar to what Northrop Grumman is to St. Johns," he said.
The second largest earmark was for Mathews Associates Inc. of Sanford, Fla. This battery-manufacturing company, joined with STIDD Systems Inc., of Greenport, N.Y., got an earmark request of $4.5 million to manufacture a diver propulsion device. STIDD makes submersible boats.
The other three earmark requests, for Electronic Warfare Associates Inc. of Lake Mary, which makes communications and counter-terrorism equipment, Cubic Corp. of San Diego, Calif., which makes instrumented training systems for military forces and virtual training devices, and Ocean Design Inc. of Daytona shared requests of $4.15 million among them.
Final figures, though, are not available for each company.
Campaign contributions to Mica from 2001 to 2007 were a total of $158,375.
The largest contributor in 2007 was Harris Corp. of Melbourne, which makes secure wireless communications networks, and has offices worldwide, 16,000 employees and annual revenues of $5 billion. The company contributed $30,500, even though it received no earmarks that year. The company is building Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles and has been awarded a $42 million contract to build state-of-the-art radios for the Air Force.
Electronic Warfare Associates Inc, gave $19,250, Cubic Corp. gave $825 and Ocean Design gave nothing.
Northrop-Grumman, which has a manufacturing and repair plant in St. Augustine, donated $20,500, even though it received no earmarks from Mica in 2007.
'Biggest red flag'
David Williams, vice president for policy for Washington, D.C., based Citizens Against Government Waste, said his organization supported the failed earmark amendment, which would have imposed a one-year moratorium on congressional earmarks.
"We're not opposed to government spending," Williams said. "But earmarks are passed with no competitive bidding and no oversight. That's the biggest red flag we have."
An earmark, Williams explained, locks a legislator's vote to the bill that it's on.
He said the Pentagon doesn't request these funds. The money comes out of the Pentagon's budget.
Mica said the decision to place an earmark on a bill is made by "a collage" of the administration, members of Congress and agency representatives.
"We can't force the Defense Department to take any products it doesn't want," he said. "Many of these requests are for training equipment or to protect our men and women in the military and to save money."
For example, a virtual firing range can save millions of dollars a year in bullets.
Still, abuses occur with regularity.
A Michigan legislator wanted a $1 million earmark to build a water-free urinal. The only company in the country that makes that particular item was in his district. Another legislator wanted a $500,000 earmark to build a teapot museum in his district. And former California Rep. Duke Cunningham was convicted of taking bribes and kickbacks for supporting earmarks to a company that promised to digitize Department of Defense manuals.
Williams said, "A lot of people in Congress are good people who think they're doing the right thing. They don't see earmarks as a corrupting influence. Others issue a press release and pose for a ground-breaking photo. They never answer the question, 'Do we really need this?'"
Creating jobs laudable, but ...
Beth Rosenson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida, teaches political ethics and said there is nothing in the ethics code against earmarks.
"But there's an ethical cloud that hangs over it," Rosenson said. "There must be a legitimate reason why this money is being spent. You have to look at specifics. Is the earmark for a company or individual? Is it tied to a public good, like a hospital? Also the question should be asked: Why isn't this being put in the budget?"
Legislators should follow the "appearance standard," avoiding behavior reflecting unfavorably on them, she said.
"Creating jobs is a laudable achievement. But the question is the manner in which it's being done."
Mica said Friday that in January he instituted new and more stringent earmark rules to the Republicans serving on the Transportation Committee. These include full disclosure of Republican (earmarks) at least 24 hours before it is considered.
"I've tried to clear it up and introduce more transparency," he said.
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