Your town may soon get a financial shot in the arm if once-reviled congressional earmarks make a return, courtesy of President Donald Trump and Congress.
Earmarks, criticized as pork-barrel politics but popular with lawmakers who divert federal funds to pet projects on their home turf, started falling out of favor around 2005 after congressional watchdogs continually hammered them as debt-boosting waste.
They also sparked bad behavior. Lawmakers were accused slipping earmarks into legislation as favors to big campaign donors. One, Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., even went to jail after pleading guilty in 2006 for taking bribes to get earmarks for defense contractors.
But deal-maker Trump says earmarks could be useful for ending gridlock. Lawmakers won’t vote against bills that include money for their hometown projects, he argues. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., agreed that earmarks are at least worth talking about.
Members of Congress have used earmarks to garner money for projects as diverse as a bridge to nowhere, community theater makeovers and even a teapot museum. Here’s a look at 18 notorious earmarks, up until they were banned in 2011.
1. Palin’s “bridge to nowhere”
The never-built bridge to nowhere still stands as the poster child of earmarks gone awry.
Championed by the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the bridge originally was the goal of a $223 million federal funding earmark for 2006. Crossing a popular cruise route called the Inside Passage, it would have linked the city of Ketchikan, on the southwest coast of Revillagigedo Island, to the city’s airport on Gravina Island, population 50.
Alaska eventually got the money, and hundreds of millions more for transportation projects, but not as earmarks. Then-Gov. Sarah Palin put the brakes on the bridge project in 2007 when cost projections exceeded $400 million. Alaska kept the federal money, but that didn’t stop Palin, while campaigning as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008, from repeating the line, “I told Congress, ‘Thanks but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere.'”
Alaska used some of the no-longer-earmarked money to improve ferry service between Ketchikan and its airport.
2. Tempest over teapots
In 2005, Congress appropriated $500,000 to help build the Sparta Teapot Museum in Sparta, North Carolina, where local officials hoped to lure tourists to an 8,000-piece, $5 million teapot collection belonging to Sonny and Gloria Kamm of Pasadena, California.
“Taxpayers should be steamed that their money is being gambled on this project,” said Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan spending watchdog, in its 2006 edition of its “Congressional Pig Book.”
Museum organizers opened a preview gallery in 2006 in a Sparta storefront while planning the full-scale $14.5 million museum. It was later scaled back to a $3 million plan, and in 2009 the project’s board of directors announced it would be scrapped altogether, citing the economic downturn and poor fundraising prospects.
The federal money was returned. The teapots are in storage as the Kamms’ foundation tries to get them a home.
3. Sen. Clinton’s hippie museum
In 2007, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., lobbied for a $1 million earmark for a museum to help you remember Woodstock, the 1969 concert that many joke can’t be remembered if you were really there.
After shepherding her earmark through a Senate committee, the full Senate approved an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to kill the “hippie museum” earmark and move some of its money to the Health Resources and Services Administration for its maternal and child health services program.
In October 2007, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., used the earmark request in a campaign debate referencing his time as a POW during the Vietnam War: “In case you missed it, a few days ago, Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock Concert Museum. Now, my friends, I wasn’t there. I’m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event … I was tied up at the time.” McCain used his line in a TV ad aired in New Hampshire a few days later.
The Museum at Bethel Woods opened in June 2008 at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, located on the former farm where Woodstock was held. It is funded largely through a private foundation.
4. One for the Gipper
You may not remember the parade in Springfield, Missouri, that included both President Harry Truman and then-actor Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy. But folks in Springfield do, thanks in part to a $475,000 earmark obtained in 2004 by Roy Blunt, a U.S. congressman from the area. (Blunt is now junior senator from Missouri.)
On June 7, 1952, Springfield hosted the parade honoring both a reunion for members of the 35th Infantry Division, led by Truman during World War I, and the world premiere of the movie “The Winning Team,” starring Reagan, at Springfield’s Gillioz Theater. (Reagan earlier had played Notre Dame football player George “the Gipper” Gipp in “Knute Rockne: All American.”)
With the help of the federal funds, the Gillioz was restored to its original 1926 grandeur and now hosts concerts, theater productions and other events. It is in a complex touted as the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Center for the Arts.
“Having President Reagan’s name on this complex reflects a unique moment in Springfield’s history and is a fitting tribute to President Reagan’s service to the nation, his contribution to the arts, the movie industry and his ties to the Gillioz Theater,” Blunt said in 2008.
5. Sowing seeds of sustainability
In 2009, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., then House Agriculture Subcommittee chairwoman, secured a $300,000 earmark to sow sustainability of the Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge, Connecticut. The 57-acre, nonprofit, certified-organic farm had been deeded to the town two years earlier by the last surviving Massaro brother, whose family had operated the site as a dairy farm since 1916.
On Aug. 6, 2010, DeLauro saw the fruits of her earmark labor. She received a basket of fresh produce and toured fencing around cultivated fields, farm equipment and a “powerful irrigation system,” all sprung from the federal allocation, local news reports at the time said.
6. Funds for fleece or fleecing?
If you find a leg of lamb scrumptious or a wool sweater warm and cozy, you might want to thank former Sen. Max Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester, both Montana Democrats, for the $148,950 earmark they obtained in 2008 for the Montana Sheep Institute, whose “goal is to explore opportunities to increase the utilization of sheep in weed management programs and improve the profitability and competitiveness of the Montana Sheep Industry.”
“This is a b-a-a-a-a-d earmark,” the group Citizens Against Government Waste said as it released its 2008 Congressional Pig Book. CAGW noted that the institute had received $2.8 million in federal funds since 2002.
“We have long funded research and development in the production of food and fiber, period,” then-Sen. Conrad R. Burns, R-Mont., told the Los Angeles Times in 2001, when an earlier $400,000 Sheep Institute earmark was approved.
7. Ye gods! Restoring statue cost a pretty penny
Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge, watches over Birmingham, Alabama, from atop Red Mountain as a 56-foot-tall symbol of the city’s ironworking origins. But it wasn’t always so.
Built for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the 50-ton statue forged with local iron was in serious need of rehabilitation as the 20th century came to an end. A $15.5 million campaign, including $3.5 million in earmarks secured through Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., brought the statue back to its former glory. He triumphed over objections of critics, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who asked: “Why would federal dollars pay for a face-lift of a Roman god in Alabama? Not one more federal dollar should be spent on this kind of foolishness.”
But many dollars were. The rest is history, written in iron, as the Vulcan Park & Museum website says.
8. Blast from the past
You don’t have to visit a casino to have a blast in Las Vegas, thanks in part to a $1 million earmark in 2001 for the for the Atomic Testing History Museum, courtesy of then-Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The museum features simulated atmospheric bomb blasts, a history of the Cold War and atomic culture that goes “beyond duck and cover.” The museum helps the public better understand the danger of nuclear weapons.
When challenged about the earmark, a Reid aide told the Los Angeles Times, “We had a lot of people who either gave their lives or had their lives cut short by the above-ground nuclear testing that was done at the Nevada Test Site.”
9. Lobster dog treats
When rewarding your pooch for good behavior, perhaps you’d like to give your connoisseur canine a tasty lobster treat.
Blue Seal pet foods developed Lobster Bisque-It dog biscuits in conjunction with the Lobster Institute of Maine. In 2008, the institute received a $188,000 earmark to launch the Lobster Health Coalition, thanks to Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins and then-Democratic Rep. Thomas Allen.
Citizens Against Government Waste said American taxpayers were funding the “Lobster Institute for Better Dog Food.” CAGW argued that Maine lobstermen, estimated to have earned $547 million for their catches in 2016, could fund the institute.
But the institute’s director, Robert Bayer, responded: “Lobsters get sick just like any other animal. We want to know what those health issues are and how we can mitigate them.”
10. Just say “whoa”
The West was built one mule at a time. You can learn their story thanks in part to a $50,000 earmark stubbornly sought in 2008 by then-Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., for a mule and packers museum.
“They could go 30 miles a day where wagon trains could only go about five. They are an integral part of the development of this country,” McKeon said on the House floor.
Then a congressman, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake urged “the American taxpayer to say ‘whoa’ and stand up for fiscal sanity and actually stop the practice of earmarking like we are doing.”
If you were to visit Bishop, California, home of an annual Mule Days festival on Memorial Day weekends, you’d find that the $5 million museum’s still in the works, but you can browse three display panels at the Bishop Chamber of Commerce Building on Main Street.
11. Montana’s global commerce
When you think World Trade Center, surely Montana comes to mind. No?
In 2008, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., secured a $583,000 earmark for his state’s bustling center of global commerce in Missoula.
“The Montana World Trade Center (MTWC) has been a valuable resource for local businesses trying to sell their goods internationally,” Rehberg said.
In 2016, Montana exported $103 million worth of commodities ranging from semiconductor components to legumes, according to MTWC statistics reported by the Missoulian. While 46 percent of Montana’s exports go north to Canada, about 27 percent go to Asia.
12. Here’s to hops
Beer lovers might want to hoist a glass to a $460,752 earmark to help fund the Northwest Hops Research program in Corvallis, Oregon. Two representatives and four senators from Washington and Oregon, the nation’s top hops producers, secured the earmark in 2008.
The program would allow experts to investigate “critical issues” in the industry, Time magazine reported. The research was also expected to produce hops that could resist diseases and pests.
13. Patrol boat run aground
In 2002, Washington’s Sen. Patty Murray and then-Reps. Norm Dicks and Brian Baird, all Democrats, floated a $4.5 million earmark to force the Navy to buy a sleek, speedy, 85-foot patrol boat from shipbuilder Guardian Marine International of Edmonds, Washington.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., attacked the earmark to no avail, noting that the Coast Guard had evaluated the boat and didn’t want it. “I guess the Senate Appropriations Committee has a better understanding than the Coast Guard, of what equipment will and will not work best,” he wrote.
The Seattle Times later noted that the Washington lawmakers received campaign donations from Guardian Marine’s owner. The Navy gave the boat to the University of Washington, which never found a use for it, either, the newspaper reported.
14. Porky parking lot project
If you ever tried to park your car in downtown Provo, Utah, you might understand why GOP Utah Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch sponsored a $475,000 earmark in 2009 for a parking garage there.
Their request drew the scorn of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who put the garage in his top 10 list of “porkiest projects.”
Even Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, whose district included Provo, objected to Washington funding a local parking garage. “I do not believe it’s the fundamental and proper role of government to try to transport a group of shoppers from one mall to another. … We are $12 trillion in debt … We have to say no to something.”
15. Earmarks for the elite
The private Rainier Club, where 1,200 of Seattle’s well-heeled are members, was falling apart in 2009. Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Seattle, sought a $250,000 earmark to pay about half the cost of window repairs and replacements of eroding limestone windowsills. Club members raised the other half.
The building, built in 1904, is designated a Seattle city landmark and state historic building but is not recognized as nationally significant, so it didn’t qualify for other types of historic-preservation grants.
“They are earmarking it because they can’t get in through the front door, so they are climbing through the window,” Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, told The Seattle Times.
16. Send in the earmarks
Drop in on the Aviation Trail Parachute Museum, on the second floor of the Aviation Trail Visitor Center in Dayton, Ohio, to learn the story of the free fall parachute — from its invention at Dayton’s McCook Field after World War I, up to the vital role it plays in safely landing today’s spacecraft.
That’s thanks in part to a $95,000 earmark in 2009 sought by Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio.
Sen. Tim Coburn, R-Okla., included the parachute museum in his 2010 Wastebook detailing what he considered wasteful government spending.
Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the Dayton-based National Aviation Heritage Alliance, said the money was a small portion of funding that also included local, state and private sources.
17. Where old signs go to die
To see Sin City’s former glitz, visit the Las Vegas Neon Boneyard, opened in part with a $1.8 million earmark approved by Congress in 2010.
The Boneyard preserves more than 200 signs, 11 of which are restored. Treasures include signs from Caesars Palace, Binion’s Horseshoe, the Golden Nugget and the Stardust. And as one Yelp reviewer put it, it’s walking distance from downtown’s Fremont Street “even if you’re really, really drunk.”
18. The biggest dig
If you think driving in Boston is tough now, you should have tried getting around Beantown before the “Big Dig” was finished in 2007. The Central Artery and Tunnel project shifted the aging elevated Interstate 93 underground and created a route to Boston’s airport, and now traffic (some 536,000 vehicles daily) really moves, the Boston Globe said in retrospect.
Considered by critics as the most expensive transportation earmark in history, the Big Dig took 30 years and nearly $15 billion to complete. Half the financing came from Federal Highway Administration grants — not all technically earmarks, but much of the funds found a fast lane to the Bay State when Democrat Tip O’Neill was House speaker, Republican Mitt Romney was governor and Democrat Barney Frank was a key House lawmaker.
Frank once joked, “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to raise the city than to depress the Artery?”
The project was plagued with cost overruns, delays, leaks, design flaws, substandard materials and in 2006 even killed a woman when concrete ceiling slabs crushed the car she was traveling in with her husband.
Do you have other favorite examples of earmarks? Do you think earmarks are wasteful or do they give lawmakers more say over how your taxpayer money is spent? Share your thoughts with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.
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