Once again, budgetary pork is the talk of Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON -- In these lean times, it seems lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are squealing about the other side's budgetary pork.

Democrats who have faced blistering criticism from Republicans over earmarks in the recently passed stimulus package are now firing right back at the GOP, calling their leadership hypocritical for seeking pork barrel projects in a huge spending measure winding through Congress.

The problem is, both Democrats and Republicans partake of a little bacon now and then when it comes to tucking federal funding for favored projects into large spending bills. The process is called earmarking, and this week Georgia lawmakers certainly got an earful about the practice.

The state's lawmakers, many of whom sit on powerful appropriations committees, secured $99 million for such projects.

The debate, however, centers on a basic question: When is an earmark necessary to direct money to projects that might otherwise go unfunded and when is an earmark simply pork?

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, one of only a few Democratic senators who hasn't requested earmarks for her state, singled out Republican earmarks during a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday.

"Earmarking was taken to a new art form under the Republican Congress and President Bush," McCaskill said Tuesday on CNN. "The Republicans in the Senate have lined up for billions and billions and billions of dollars. You can't have it both ways. You can't be half pregnant on this deal."

Area lawmakers says it's not that simple.

Reps. Jim Marshall, D-Macon, and Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, often stress that their constituents elected them to represent their communities' best interests. Earmarking helps ensure that funds get to the communities that need it most, they say.

For example, Marshall secured a $247,000 earmark for a rural health outreach program in Forsyth -- an issue he and other Middle Georgia lawmakers have long championed. Similarly, Bishop netted nearly $200,000 for area hospitals to buy equipment.

Over the years, Georgia's senators and congressmen have netted millions to improve hospitals, roads, university programs, military bases and airports.

And over the past seven years, some of these same lawmakers also helped secure earmarks for clients of PMA, a lobbying firm under federal investigation for possibly illegally contributing to the campaigns of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., and other lawmakers, according to data compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense and analyzed by Congressional Quarterly.

According to the report, Bishop, who sits on the defense appropriations subcommittee, helped PMA clients net $3.6 million in earmarks in the fiscal 2008 defense appropriations bill. Marshall helped net a $2.4 million earmark and Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah, who also sits on defense appropriations, helped PMA clients net $6.4 million in defense-related earmarks in the same legislation.

All three lawmakers received thousands in campaign contributions from the firm, according to federal campaign finance records. Roughly a quarter of the House -- some 100 members -- helped the firm's clients get earmarks. Since 2001, many of those same members received $1.8 million in campaign contributions from PMA's political action committee and employees of the firm, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense and Congressional Quarterly.

The Georgia lawmakers have said the defense earmarks were for projects sorely needed in their communities and were awarded based on merit -- not their representation by PMA.

Earmarks are a thorny issue for the Obama administration. During his campaign, Barack Obama railed against pork barrel projects.

As president, however, he has been careful to blame the Bush administration for the earmarks in the current spending bill -- a measure that reflects spending decisions made last year.

And though he has spoken out against the $7.7 billion in earmarks in the measure, Obama likely will sign the spending bill into law.

He has promised to revisit the larger issue of earmarks later.

Notes on the Hill is an occasional column by Washington Correspondent Halimah Abdullah.