Mass. has $213m stake in earmark fight

Critics’ opposition to pet items could trouble crucial bill

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / December 16, 2010

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WASHINGTON — A $1.1 trillion spending bill now under review in the Senate includes at least $213 million for 174 earmarked projects for Massachusetts in what amounts to a last-ditch effort to approve items that have come under attack as wasteful pork by many Republicans and President Obama.

The bill includes $400,000 for the Paul Revere House in Boston’s North End, $8 million for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, and dozens of other earmarks that would be peppered throughout the Bay State.

It is as if items from an array of town budgets had been lumped into an act of Congress: Proposals range from $300,000 to replace a 911 communications tower in Newton, to $250,000 to purchase an improved security system at William Diamond Middle School in Lexington, to $600,000 to research the scallop fishing stock in New England. There is also $500,000 for a renovation project at the Original Thayer Library in Braintree and $1 million to plan for an extension of the MBTA’s Green Line.

Earmarks are provisions added by a legislator to a bill that directs money to a specific project, instead of going through normal funding channels that typically are reviewed by government agencies.

Many members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation have described themselves as proud backers of earmarks, but the practice has become increasingly controversial because it is dominated by politicians who are able to insert provisions for their pet projects. The list released this week erroneously indicated that Senator Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican who says he opposes earmarks, backed an $8.7 million earmark that would benefit whaling and other museums, including ones in Salem and New Bedford. A Brown spokeswoman said Brown did not request the earmark and would seek funding only through normal channels.

After the midterm elections, there was widespread talk of eliminating earmarks, with Obama and House Republicans both vowing to stop the practice; earlier this year, House Democrats banned earmarks going to for-profit institutions.

Now the release of the earmark-laden bill has stoked a wider debate about whether members of Congress want to get rid of a key means of bringing federal dollars home to districts around the nation. Partly as a result of the earmark controversy, prospects for passage of the spending bill are uncertain. Many Republicans, including some who until recently had been vigorous backers of earmarks, have said they will vote against any measure that has such spending. Some Democrats, meanwhile, continue to defend the practice as a necessary way for Congress to direct spending to projects they consider worthy — and they point out that the earmarks account for only $8 billion out of a $1.1 trillion plan.

“If you ask me if I’m for earmarks, it’s like asking if I’m for bills,’’ said Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat. “There are good earmarks and bad earmarks.’’

The debate also comes amid the rising influence of the Tea Party movement, some of whose members rose to office by railing against earmark spending. John Boehner, the incoming House speaker, has vowed not to allow them in the future.

Nonetheless, the urge to continue the practice continues to entice. For example, Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader, has said he would fight to kill the bill on grounds unrelated to earmarks — even as he sponsored 42 earmarks worth $86.1 million in the measure, according to the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“It’s sort of like a bad horror flick. You kill, kill, kill, and it keeps coming back at you,’’ said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Never underestimate the power of the parochial project.’’

The House voted last week to continue federal spending at current levels through the remainder of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The Senate is instead trying to lump together several spending packages, with earmarks included. If backers succeed — which is far from certain, given that time is running out in the lame duck session — it would still need to be approved in the House. If they don’t, the Senate would probably follow the House and attempt to continue funding the federal government at current levels.

Massachusetts has a huge stake in the legislation.

The bill includes $450 million for a program that is developing a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, despite objections from the Pentagon and a veto threat from the Obama administration. That funding, considered wasteful by the White House, is supported by most of the Massachusetts congressional delegation because it would help preserve jobs at a General Electric plant in Lynn.

The legislation also includes funding for the Navy to double an order of coastal combat ships — from 10 to 20 ships — that would dramatically expand the program and would bring 500 new jobs to a General Dynamics computer manufacturing plant in Pittsfield.

Representative Richard Neal, the Springfield Democrat, said yesterday that the earmarks for Massachusetts in the bill support jobs and would be helpful to the state’s economy.

“What’s missing in this discussion about earmarks,’’ said Neal, is that attempts to ban them “would transfer spending authority from Congress to the White House. I have always resisted anything that weakens congressional authority. I like to say, ‘You can get a meeting with your congressman. Try getting a meeting with the president.’ ’’

Earlier this year, the 10-member House delegation from Massachusetts submitted 576 earmarks worth $1.4 billion, according to a Globe tally. That list, combined with those submitted from Senator John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, was narrowed down by a Senate subcommittee in this week’s legislation to 174 earmarks worth $213.4 million.

One of the biggest requests is an $8 million earmark — submitted by Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat — that would help fund the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. The institute, which is also being funded through private donations, has already received $38.3 million in funds through federal earmarks.

Institute officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The bill also includes an $8.7 million earmark for “historic whaling and trading partners’’ that is intended to help a group of museums that primarily specialize in whaling, art, and Native American culture. Brown, who has taken a strong and public stand against earmarks, is listed as a cosponsor.

A Brown spokeswoman said that while the senator did write to leaders of the Appropriations Committee to “request your consideration in continuing to provide funding’’ for the program, he did not specifically seek an earmark. Brown yesterday afternoon wrote to the Senate Appropriations Committee to ask that his name be removed.

“It was not our intention to request an earmark for this program as I do not support earmarks,’’ Brown wrote. “I respectfully request that my name be removed.’’

An appropriations committee aide later confirmed that Brown’s name was put there in error, and a statement will be put into the congressional record today saying that his name should not have been included.

The funding would go to an educational exchange called Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations. It benefits six museums, including the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem and the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The others are in Mississippi, Alaska, and Hawaii. The exchange allows the museums to share collections and do exchange programs.

“If the program were cut — particularly in the South Coast region, which is struggling under the weight of this recession — it literally would affect tens of thousands of students each year,’’ said James Russell, president of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. “They would be deprived of some creative and innovative programs outside of school.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at