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Thu August 31, 2006
How North Texas Earmarks Got Into a Congressional Spending Bill
By Marla Crockett, KERA Reporter
Dallas, TX –
Sam Baker, Morning Edition Host: When Congress returns from its summer recess next week, one of the items on its agenda is the Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill. The controversial legislation contains about half-a-billion dollars in earkmarks, also known as pork, including 26 million dollars for Texas Congressional districts. In this report, 90.1's Marla Crockett looks at how the most expensive items for North Texas got into the bill:
Marla Crockett, KERA Reporter: First a little context. There are more than 18-hundred earmarks, or mandated projects, in the House Health and Human Services spending bill. Former House Republican leader Dick Armey of Texas says that's as bad as he's seen it:
Dick Armey, Former Texas Congressman: I think it's two to three times worse than when I was majority leader. We've had three years where you had Tom DeLay, who actually advocated this kind of activity. Pushed it along, where I repressed it.
Crockett: While in Congress, Armey fought excess government spending, and now as head of the non-profit group Freedom Works in Washington, D.C., the Lewisville resident is pushing for more transparency in how earmarks get approved:
Armey: The House will pass a spending bill. The Senate will pass a comparable bill. They go to a meeting of the two bodies called a conference committee. And then you'll find special allocations or earmarks put in at that time in the dark of night and actually aren't seen by anybody else in the legislative body. That's, I think, inappropriate behavior.
Crockett: According to the non-partisan group Porkbusters, Texas has 59 earmarks in the current House bill, ranking it 6th nationwide. Republican Congresswoman Kay Granger of Fort Worth says she proudly put her name on the most expensive expenditure for North Texas, 2.3 million dollars in equipment for Cook Children's Medical Center:
Fort Worth Congresswoman Kay Granger: In this situation, Cook Children's spent some time making me familiar with this piece of equipment, Intraoperative Magnetic Resonance Imaging. It's a type of MRI.
Bobby Feather, Senior Vice President of Public Policy, Cook Children's Medical Center: The way we're proposing to put it together and offer this, it would be one of the few in the Southwest. There might be two or three in the whole country.
Crockett: Bobby Feather, Senior Vice President of Public Policy for Cook Children's, says the intraoperative MRI is already under construction in the hospital's operating rooms and will help surgeons do advanced imaging during delicate brain surgery:
Feather: The project will cost in excess of 10.5 million dollars. Over the last three years or so, the community's raised right at 5 million dollars, and to have the opportunity to have 2.3 million to complete the project, what a great success story.
Granger: They didn't request all the entire cost, but said can you help us with a part of it. That's one of the criteria I have in most instances. I'll say does it have support locally; in other words, can they come up with funds also.
Crockett: Congresswoman Granger tried and failed to get money for the imaging equipment last year. Because of a long-standing relationship with Cook Children's, she's confident the hospital will spend taxpayer dollars wisely. Here are the other criteria she applies before putting a local request on her priority list:
Granger: Does it benefit the entire district? That's important. Does it compete with another program in my funding? For instance, if Cook wants this, is it also something John Peter Smith is also trying to get? A lot of questions. Oftentimes on a request they have to come back because they don't have the answers. I'll say, keep me involved, let me know how you're progressing with this.
Crockett: That whole process sounds very familiar to Democratic Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas. She sponsored four separate requests for the next biggest beneficiary in North Texas under this bill, U-T Southwestern Medical Center.
Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democratic Congresswoman from Dallas: Health is very much an interest and research is even more, because we've never had a breakthrough without research.
Crockett: Johnson says the million dollars in grants to U-T Southwestern are her highest priority. They include: 75-thousand dollars, in cooperation with U-T Dallas, to help recruit minority students for biomedical research; 100-thousand dollars so the school can help equip its Nanotechnology Cancer Center; 175-thousand dollars for U-T Southwestern's joint program on sickle cell disease; and 650-thousand dollars for the school's new Center for Obesity, Diabetes and Metabolism Research.
Dr. Mary Ellen Weber, Vice President of Government Affairs and Policy at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center: You've named some of the major thrust areas for our campus going forward for the future.
Crockett: Dr. Mary Ellen Weber, Vice President of Government Affairs and Policy at U-T Southwestern Medical Center, says the highly regarded research institution needs these dollars for equipment and clinical research:
Weber: In general, for any funds like this we receive, we've leveraged the money 10 to 15-fold. So, it's a very small percentage of the overall research that we'd consider the seed funding, and yet it's absolutely critical, because if you don't have special database equipment and things like that, you can't compete successfully.
Crockett: Congresswoman Johnson says in general, her office requires a budget for any request, but in U-T Southwestern's case, Dr. Weber says the school didn't supply a budget so much as communicate the need in writing and in person at various times during the year. Dick Armey has no problem with the earmarks that Johnson and Congresswoman Granger are promoting. What he objects to is when party leaders like Tom DeLay put politics above public policy:
Armey: The leadership will sit down and have a meeting. The Congressional campaign committee will come in and he'll say, 'I've got these five or six people that are in trouble, and this is the project that would attend to their improved election,' and the leadership sits down and says we can't afford to lose their seats, and we'll put in the orders to the appropriators to put those projects in.
Crockett: Granger and Johnson say they've seen that kind of abuse in Congress, too, but they stand by earmarking. Eddie Bernice Johnson:
Johnson: If you don't earmark, then your constituents might feel you're not paying any attention to their needs. There are times when the poorest districts will get nothing unless there's someone there looking out for that geographic area. I've been through that ever since I've been in public office. Southern Dallas never got what it deserved and now that I'm on Transportation, I earmark it.
Crockett: Asked how constituents who ask for money feel about bloated spending nationwide, Johnson replied, "They don't care what's going on in other districts." She and Granger will be tracking the appropriations they care about, but agree that anything can happen up until the bill is signed. And that might be a long time in coming. Observers on Capitol Hill say Congress probably won't deal with the appropriations bill before the November election. For KERA 90.1, I'M Marla Crockett.