10:00 PM PDT on Saturday, June 4, 2011
By BEN GOAD
WASHINGTON – Congressional earmarks may be dead for the moment, but that isn’t stopping individual lawmakers from requesting federal funding for their favorite programs.
In the absence of earmarks — lawmaker-initiated spending directives that have fallen out of public favor — members of Congress have made thousands of funding requests through lesser known “programmatic requests” that they hope will help guide the flow of federal cash from Washington to the rest of the nation.
Inland Southern California’s delegation has made dozens of requests. If those are included in federal spending bills making their way through Congress, they would total more than $200 million above President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for certain programs in the 2012 fiscal year.
In years past, lawmakers sent lists of earmark requests to the committee in charge of drafting the spending bills that fund federal agencies. They included funding requests for hospitals, specific transportation projects in their home districts and even private firms such as defense contractors.
The process brought scores of earmarks worth tens of millions of dollars annually to Riverside and San Bernardino counties, paying for a wide range of projects, including flood control, equipment for local police departments and after-school programs.
But earmarks — also known as pork barrel spending — became, for many Americans, symbolic of government bloat and abuse, thanks in part to a series of congressional scandals.
Republicans, seeking to show voters they are the party of fiscal restraint, abandoned earmarks last year. Democrats were forced to follow suit after Obama announced he would veto any spending bill for the coming fiscal year that contains earmarks.
Instead, lawmakers this year could only make their funding priorities known to the House Appropriations Committee via programmatic requests. The process allows them to seek increases or decreases to national pots of money — but prohibits them from attaching funds for localized projects, committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said.
“It’s, ‘I’m member X and I support more money for the FEMA disaster relief fund, or I support more money — or less money — for the Department of Energy’s renewable loan program,” she explained. “It’s not, ‘Can you please give me $100,000 for my community center.’”
Among the Inland area’s House members who agreed to disclose their funding requests, Rep. Joe Baca had the most, with 21.
Baca, D-Rialto, said he was proud of the requests and that they are “designed to ensure we properly fund those programs that are critical to the health, education, transportation infrastructure and public safety of our Inland Empire communities, and the continued safety and security of our nation.”
In many cases, his requests call upon the appropriations committees to keep funding for programs at current levels. That includes $20 million for a national ovarian cancer research program and $95 million for the national Drug Free Communities program.
He is also requesting a $24 million boost for a grant program that many Inland police departments have used to hire officers and $30 million above the amount contained in Obama’s budget proposal for a program to pay for wireless and digital technology at institutions that serve minorities.
Many of the 19 requests made by Rep. Ken Calvert don’t contain specific funding totals, but instead seek to attach language to the bills to direct federal agencies. One such request would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to create and administer a competitive grant program for water infrastructure that was previously paid for through earmarks.
“The fact that the Congress no longer directs funding in this way does not mean that critical water infrastructure programs should be abandoned or that the entire burden of compliance with federal water regulations should be shouldered one hundred percent by local water entities,” Calvert, R-Corona wrote in a request to the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees EPA spending.
Calvert also requested funding for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program totaling $194 million above the president’s proposed budget of $136 million. The program gives partial reimbursements to states for the costs of incarcerating illegal immigrants.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, made just one request: $60 million for a Department of Homeland Security grant program that provides resources to border states. That’s a $10 million increase over what the White House proposed for the program, known as Operation Stonegarden.
Only one area lawmaker, Rep. Mary Bono Mack, made no requests during the current budget process.
“With the economic conditions facing our nation, we’re laser-locked on cutting spending, not adding to it,” said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the Palm Springs Republican.
Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, meanwhile, declined to release a list of his requests, saying the process is still evolving.
“Congressman Lewis does not plan to discuss his proposals for changes in appropriations bills until the committee resolves how it will determine which requests are acceptable,” said Lewis spokesman Jim Specht. “He expects to explain his requests as they are made public when the bills are brought forward from the committee to the floor.”
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