Stopgap spending bill contains funds for Washington

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 5, 2008 

WASHINGTON -- Even as Congress and the White House struggled to deal with the nation's mounting financial crisis, President Bush quietly signed a stopgap spending bill last week that provides hundreds of millions of dollars for projects and programs in Washington state.

The measure, which funds the federal government for the next six months, provides nearly $500 million for the state's military bases, including $330 million for Fort Lewis. Dozens of companies and small business across the state will receive more than $100 million in Pentagon contracts for everything from improving the taste of the military's Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) to developing a digital pen that could be used by combat medics.

The bill also provides $900 million in emergency funding to fight forest fires, funding that should mean U.S. Forest Service accounts for such things as trail and campground maintenance and reforestation won't have to be raided.

But while the measure includes additional funding for defense, homeland security and veterans, other federal agencies will see their spending temporarily frozen at current levels at the same time inflation has crept up.

Despite the money for Washington state, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, said the whole process left a bad taste in his mouth and leaves much of the federal government at least temporarily scrambling for funds.

As chairman of the House Appropriations interior subcommittee, Dicks holds sway over nearly $27 billion in funding for the Interior Department, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian and a handful of other federal agencies.

Dicks said it would cost roughly $600 million in additional funding just to keep those departments and agencies operating without cuts or creative bookkeeping.

"I'm very disappointed in what happened and very frustrated," Dicks said of the decision to pass a so-called continuing resolution to keep government operating rather than push through a dozen separate appropriations bills over the objections of congressional Republicans and the White House.

Republicans disrupted the appropriations process in the House and the Senate by demanding that a ban on offshore oil and gas drilling be lifted. The White House threatened to veto any temporary funding measure that continued the ban.

In the end, the quarter-century ban on drilling within three miles of the coast quietly expired.

"The controversy over offshore drilling not only derailed my bill but almost the whole appropriations process," Dicks said.

The lifting of the moratorium is not expected to have much if any effect off the Northwest coast. Washington state and Oregon have the lowest reserves of oil and gas of any coastal states. In addition, drilling is permanently barred in the Olympic Coastal National Marine Sanctuary, which stretches from the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula south to roughly Grays Harbor and extends up to 46 miles offshore.

Washington state's other appropriator, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, said she, too, was frustrated that Congress had to resort to a temporary funding measure.

"While I am disappointed that this bill means level funding for many of our state's top priorities over the coming months, the president has left us little choice," said Murray, chairman of the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee.

Murray and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said they were especially concerned what level funding could mean to the cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation. Murray called it a "less than ideal" situation and Hastings said it creates "uncertainty." But both lawmakers said it was better than the cuts the White House proposed in the Energy Department's budget to clean up Hanford and other nuclear production sites.

The $630 billion bill provides a record $488 billion for the Pentagon, $40 billion for homeland security, $73 billion for veterans' programs and military construction as well as aid for disaster victims and $25 billion in government-subsidized loans for automakers.

The measure also included 2,321 of so-called earmarks worth $6.6 billion, according to the congressional watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. Earmarks are special projects or programs inserted in appropriations bills by individual members. Under new rules, the earmarks have to be disclosed, including information on who sought them.

Taxpayers for Common Sense has compiled a database on the earmarks, which can be found at www.taxpayer.net.

Lawmakers from Washington state secured slightly more than $100 million in earmarks, all of them defense related. Every state lawmaker, except for Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen and Republican Reps. Dave Reichert and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, secured earmarks.

"When I request an earmark, I make sure it is good for the district and in the best interest of the taxpayers," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

One of Smith's earmarks provides $2 million to purchase ballistic shields to protect the driver's hatch on 111 of the Stryker vehicles based at Fort Lewis.

"This was the top request of the commander there, but something that wouldn't have been funded without an earmark," said Smith.

Murray and Dicks received the most earmarks. Murray's fingerprints, either individually or with other members of the state's congressional delegation, were on more than $67 million in earmarks and Dicks on nearly $48 million.

Neither Murray nor Dicks make any apologies for their earmarks.

"I work everyday to ensure that even though Washington state is 2,500 miles from D.C., our businesses and communities still get the investments that help our state grow," Murray said.

Here's a look at some of the construction projects at Fort Lewis:

-- $27 million for a child development center

-- $32 million for an Army National Guard aviation readiness center

-- $38 million for a Special Ops battalion complex

-- $233 million for various battalion and brigade complexes

Here's a look at some of the earmarks:

Murray -- $1.6 million for a Kent firm and Washington State University to develop new MREs that improve freshness, shelf life and taste; $3 million to an Oregon company to study using bone marrow stem cells to regenerate limb tissues damaged in combat; $11.8 million for a new large harbor Navy tug in Puget Sound and $1.6 million to help Tacoma Trauma Trust train military physicians.

Dicks -- $1.2 million for continued studies into low levels of dissolved oxygen in Hood Canal and elsewhere in Puget Sound; $1.3 million for the Puget Sound Navy Museum in Bremerton; $4.8 million for continued development of a wireless buoy sensor grid, including video, nuclear, biological and chemical sensors, for Puget Sound and $5 million for a 66-foot coastal command boat that will be built in Port Orchard.

Smith -- $800,000 for the Madigan Army Medical Center to develop a digital pen that could be used by forward-deployed medics; $1.6 million for research and development of infrared lasers to help stabilize combat related nerve and tissue damage.

Hastings -- $1.2 million to develop technology to provide the Army with non-lethal munitions; $2.4 million to help develop a battlefield power generation system that is small, efficient, low maintenance and reliable.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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