Need to Expand a Museum? Ask for Pentagon Funding
WASHINGTON — THE projects sound worthy. A ``Discovery Hall'' for the New York Museum of Science, work on CFC-free refrigeration techniques, and a health-professional training center at Mt. Sinai Medical Center of Miami.
The question is: Why should the Pentagon pay for these and 22 other pet proposals that members of Congress have slipped into a corner of the Defense Department budget?
Defense transition money meant to cushion the blow of military cutbacks is fast becoming Congress's newest pork barrel, critics charge. The House version of the 1994 defense spending bill, in particular, has already earmarked $236 million in transition funds for projects pushed by individual members.
These earmarks account for fully 40 percent of the Defense Department's Technology Reinvestment Project (TRP) - a program intended to fund advances with both military and civilian applications.
``A lot of people are interested in these technology programs and there's a lot of money being thrown into it,'' says Carol Lessure, a Defense Budget Project analyst.
The law says this money can only be allocated by the Defense Department itself, after proposals have been judged in a competitive process. Thus it is not clear whether the House earmarks are legal, say critics.
It is also not clear whether the favored projects will be included in the final defense appropriations legislation drawn up in a House-Senate conference.
The House has already approved its version of the appropriations bill. The Senate has yet to vote on its version - and its own earmarks.
``Such pork-barrel politics threatens to derail the most worthy and innovative items on President Clinton's technology agenda,'' complained Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D) of California in a House floor speech late last month.
OBTAINING as much money as possible for the folks back home is a traditional practice of both representatives and senators and one many of them are proud of. Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia makes no effort to hide his attempts to land federal money and jobs for his state, saying that in many instances he knows better how to spend taxpayer dollars than bureaucrats do.
The Transportation Department has long been perhaps Congress's favorite source of such funds.
Bus demonstration projects, highway ramps, bike paths, and train subsidies provide both local jobs and highly visible examples of lawmaker pull.
Water projects funded through the Army Corps of Engineers and the Small Business Administration are another well-known source of local money. Thus the Defense Department's TRP is just the latest in a long line of programs that have been accused of being pork-barrel sources of funding.
Born in last year's defense budget bill, TRP is supposed to be controlled by the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency. But members of Congress have quickly moved in to try to direct how the money is spent.
Among the earmarks inserted by House Appropriations Committee members are $800,000 for a CFC Free Refrigeration Technology Project; $25 million for Renewable Electric and Thermal Utility Demonstration Projects; and $22 million for a Magnetically Levitated Transportation Prototype.
The approach with TRP is particularly subtle. This year's earmarks are not written in the legal language of the actual bill. Instead, they are included in the written committee report that accompanies pieces of major legislation.
Thus the earmarks do not technically have the force of law. The full House does not get the opportunity to vote them in - or out.
But Defense Department officials know that if they do not obey the earmarks, powerful members of Congress will be annoyed and will likely cut their budget next year, accordingly.
``Traditionally, executive agencies treat these committee reports as law,'' says a House committee staffer.
Representative Brown this year won House approval of a provision restating that TRP projects should be picked by the Pentagon, not Congress. Other experts say it is not clear whether this amendment, which restates existing law, will have any effect.
Of course, one man's pork is another's noble goal. Even Brown, who has long complained about House earmarking of appropriations, says that undoubtedly many if not all the projects in question are worthwhile.
Whether they are strictly related to defense transition is another story. The New York Hall of Science, for instance, is counting on the $10 million it is slated to receive to help fund the second phase of an ambitious expansion program.
``That would give us seed money to get started,'' says a Hall of Science employee.