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How big an issue is earmark use?

Friday, 17 Oct 2008

In 2006, according to an Associated Press report, Senator Barack H. Obama inserted $400,000 for an unrelated project into an emergency bill for the Iraq war and hurricane relief. Do you want to know more?

During 2004 George Bush established an inter-agency task force to develop the “Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy.” The five (5) Great Lakes represent 90% of the accessible fresh water in the United States. The lakes are plagued by inadequate sewage treatment systems in major cities such as Detroit and Milwaukee; restoring wetlands and wildlife habitat and cleaning up toxic sediments are high priorities throughout the Great Lakes watershed, as is dealing with the increasing problem of invasive species. But the current administration has provided little funding after using the issue as a campaign promise, having generally overlooked the value of scientific research and reports while determining budget priorities.

University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IndianaTo focus on just one detail, consider the invasive species question, which requires subtler understanding than waste-water treatment infrastructure that can’t keep pace with urban outflow. A recent study by University of Notre Dame Biologist/Professor David Lodge and postdoctoral researcher Reuben Keller concluded in June of 20071 that:

“Harmful, non-native species — from combustible cheat grass to voracious carp to the West Nile virus — are spreading into U.S. lands and waters at an accelerating pace.”

Invasive species, arriving either in the ballast tanks of cargo ships or hitchhiking on other products such as plants for aquatic gardens, etc., currently cost the regional economy an estimated $200 million a year according to the Associated Press. Among those is an Asian carp – known by some locally as the “battlewagon” because it’s capable of reaching 100 pounds – consuming plankton which are an essential component of the aquatic food web. The asian carp population is already established and well documented in the Illinois River.

Enter, stage left, the Senator from Illinois:

Senator Barack H. ObamaObama has pledged to finish construction of an electronic barrier in Chicago to keep the carp from invading Lake Michigan from the Illinois River. That $400,000 earmark from 2006 was targeted for the barrier project. Great Lakes fishing is a $4 billion fishing industry, but who prefers carp to salmon?

I won’t suggest all earmark funding supports projects intended to protect the environment and/or preserve regional jobs and industries; clearly the potential for abuse exists, and doubtless the mechanism is exploited for pork-barrel projects.  To my way of thinking, even the “$3 million overhead projector” McCain keeps hammering away at in debates and stump speeches was a reasonable use of the technique: do we really need Congress to hold extended debate on a stand-alone bill about the value of supporting the educational goals of Adler Planetarium in Chicago?

How different are McCain and Bush?

Apart from the economic and ecologic impact of the project in question, clean water is a precious resource, essential in and of itself.

Additional money was included in a 2007 package for water projects ultimately enacted over President George Bush’s veto, and McCain sided with the president.  Obama supported the veto-override.

McCain has declared lately a war on earmarks. I submit that despite the wonderful sound-bite-ready nature of that rhetoric it’s tantamount to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  Reasoned, thoughtful reform to increase the transparency would be better.  Much ado about earmarks distracts both the media and the voters from more significant problems.

For those curious about the carp:

They’re ravenous eaters, according to David Schaper of NPR, consuming up to 40% of their own body weight in plankton each day. And they’re bullies, pushing out weaker, native species.

The good news: An electric barrier has kept bighead and silver carp — the two most aggressive types — from advancing beyond a lock and dam on the Illinois River, about 50 miles southwest of Chicago.”

But downriver it’s bad news: bighead and silver carp – originally introduced to the U.S. in the 1970s to control algae in catfish farms in the South, and spread via flooding into the Mississippi River – are rapidly taking over parts of the Illinois. So Obama used an earmark to try to control this threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem, to protect the people, jobs, and industries that are at risk.

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American Institute of Biological Sciences1The Notre Dame biologists also are among a group of scientists, aquarium and water garden representatives organized by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Aquatic Invasive Species Program, to manage the problem of invasive species. Their study, funded by the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, appears in the May 2007 edition of the journal BioScience (Volume 57, Number 5.)



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