House OKs $3.9 billion in earmarks in spending bill

Getting into the holiday spirit, the House of Representatives on Thursday approved a spending bill loaded with goodies for the folks back home.

Trails for Monterey Bay. An arts pavilion for Mississippi. Bus shelters for Bellflower.

In all, the bill contains 5,224 earmarks costing about $3.9 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group.

Though Democrats say they have cracked down on pork-barrel spending, critics attacked the bill as excessive.


“Clearly, the earmark culture has not been swept away,” Brian M. Riedl, a budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, blogged Thursday.

The $447-billion bill, which passed the Democratic-controlled House with no Republican votes and moved to the Senate, combines six spending bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

The measure brings total earmarks in this year’s spending bills to 7,577 at a cost of about $6 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. The Pentagon spending bill, the last of the annual appropriations bills, is expected to contain more earmarks than the omnibus bill, said Steve Ellis of the taxpayer group.

The bill provides $330 million to state and local governments for jailing illegal immigrants convicted of crimes -- $70 million less than last year. A spokesman for state government said that California would take a hit, receiving $18 million less than was budgeted for its prison costs.

However, California, which is pushing for a high-speed rail line, could receive a chunk of the $2.5 billion included in the bill for such projects.

The measure includes $50 million nationwide for a high-tech braking system, which became a priority for California lawmakers after the commuter train-freight train collision in Chatsworth last year that killed 25 people and injured 135.

The practice of designating federal dollars for pet projects, often sought by campaign contributors and lobbyists, has come under scrutiny because of scandals, including one that landed former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) in prison.

But lawmakers see bringing home the bacon as a way to show constituents that they are getting something for their taxes.


Earmark sponsors also defended the projects as important to the nation’s economic recovery. For example, Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who secured $800,000 for the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail, said that the project would help generate tourism dollars.

Other California projects in the bill, some of which also received funds last year, include $13.5 million for a bus lane on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles and $500,000 toward building a trench to speed trains traveling through the San Gabriel Valley and reduce the risk of collisions with cars and pedestrians.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of pork-barrel spending, singled out for criticism $200,000 provided for the Aquatic Adventures Science Education Foundation in San Diego. Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-San Diego) said that the money would go to a program that will “inspire children to pursue education in the sciences while encouraging students from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to college.”

The bill also includes $600,000 for an Echo Park streetscape project; $180,000 for “training the next generation of weather forecasters” at San Jose State University; and $250,000 for textile research at UC Davis.


Republicans, who believe that the explosion of earmarks while they controlled Congress contributed to their losing the majority in 2006, assailed the spending measure as excessive, even though it includes money they sought for projects in their districts.

“When are we going to say, ‘Enough is enough?’ ” asked House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who does not seek earmarks. “I don’t know how worthy any of these projects are, but I do have to ask a question: Are they more important than our kids and grandkids who are going to have to pay the debt?”

Democrats defended the spending as necessary to fund programs that they say were neglected under the George W. Bush administration, and they noted that the earmarks were down from when Republicans controlled Congress.