What do a decrepit Long Island fort and the American Museum of Natural History have in common with the Iraq War?
Well, not much, but they both got money in a recent Defense Department appropriations bill, along with 2,000 other pet projects worth more than $7 billion.
New York congresswoman Nita Lowey secured $10 million for the ongoing rehab of Fort Slocum, a defunct military garrison that, according to a
Voice review of an atlas, is a long way from the combat zone. But beefing up our defenses by spending money on an abandoned Long Island fort is apparently a key part of Lowey’s role as a member of the Homeland Security and Appropriations committees.
And she helped the Natural History Museum get $1 million for something called “advanced research to further national security goals.” Paraphrased, Lowey’s letter says the money will used for a study of pathogenicity—the ability of an organism to cause disease in another organism. Great. Why’s it in the Defense bill?
Other Congress members snagged more dreamy projects. Fellow Democrat Eliot Engel got $4 million for Verdant Power, which uses “underwater windmills” to generate electricity. Who at the DOD is going to say no to Engel’s shoehorning of this vital project into the Defense bill? He’s the vice chair of the Democratic Task Force on Homeland Security. Meanwhile, Democrat José Serrano got $2 million for Hostos Community College and Columbia University to “facilitate the preparation of minority students for public service careers.” At least they won’t be shipped directly to Iraq.
In all, the government doled out $165 million to New York–based entities in so-called earmarks as part of the Defense spending bill. Last week, when the House passed the subsequent $70 billion Iraq War appropriations bill, there were nine thousand so-called earmarks, totaling more than $7 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the D.C.-based group that compiled a list of the projects.
Looking at this list, you have to wonder which war the government is preparing for and where exactly it thinks this is going to happen. After all, the Iraq War is being fought—in Iraq—with low-tech explosives and small arms on roads and in buildings. But few of the locally based projects funded by Congress seemed to directly address the deadly details of that war.
Instead, it appears that we are preparing for a massive biological-weapons attack in upstate New York or the unleashing of a deadly chemical cloud or a crippling assault by computer hackers somewhere in the tri-state area.
That’s what happens when local companies and institutions peddle plans, schemes, or products to their Congress members. Not all the ideas are worthless, of course, but critics note that earmarks are often sweeteners that might make pols more likely to support a bill they may otherwise object to. Or they’re simply used as a way for elected officials to reward supporters. Often, the projects have little to do with the bills they’re tacked onto.
Consider a $2 million grant to a state college in upstate Cobleskill. That one was secured by Congressman Michael McNulty to develop a vehicle that would convert animal waste to energy.
“We are in a time of war, and we have men and women in harm’s way, and members of Congress are directing millions of dollars to parochial interests,” says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Earmarks perpetuate a pay-to-play atmosphere.”
Lowey spokesman Matt Dennis counters that at least the House now allows fewer earmarks and discloses a list of the projects associated with each member. He argues that House members are better-placed to evaluate projects than someone in far-off D.C.
But Ellis points out that earmarks are awarded without competitive bidding, little oversight, and almost no follow-up to see what is actually done with the money. “There’s also no guarantee,” says Ellis, “that if you held an open competition, you wouldn’t find another company that made a better product.”
At any rate, maybe you had better reach for a gas mask, no matter who makes it. Congressman John Hall secured $2 million for the New York National Guard to establish a second guard unit equipped to respond to chemical, biological, or radiation attacks. Source Sentinel LLC in East Syracuse got $2.5 million to develop a device that would detect biological threats in the water supply. A company in upstate Malta with the breathtaking name Starfire Systems got $3 million to develop “intelligent clothing” to detect chemical and biological attacks. And Congressman John Kuhl got $3 million for Henrietta-based Integrated Nanotech to develop a handheld device to identify biological-warfare agents using nanotechnology.
That’s on the micro level. But in the big picture, links between the politicians and the companies that get earmarks are often crystal clear. For example, executives of Advanced Acoustic Concepts in Hauppauge have given Congressman Steve Israel more than $20,000 in campaign contributions. This year, Israel got the firm $2 million for a technology project.
Lowey got $3,850 from executives with Hypres Inc. She recommended the firm for a $2 million satellite project. Executives at Starfire gave $4,500 in federal campaign contributions to Congressman James Walsh, one of the House members who requested the funding for the “intelligent clothing.” An official with the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute gave $1,000 to Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, who recommended $3 million for the lab to fund the study of virus transfer from humans to animals.
That’ll stop those suicide bombers in Iraq.