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Bartlett wants his pork and to appear frugal

March 30, 2009

Placing earmarks in the federal funding bill is one thing. But placing earmarks in a budget and then voting against the budget is the height of hypocrisy and political cynicism.

Fortunately, I am a fan of hypocrisy and political cynicism.

So it is with a degree of respectful admiration that I tip my hat to Rep. Roscoe Bartlett's latest ploy to have it both ways. I just wish he weren't so transparent about it.

Bartlett voted against the spending bill because, a spokeswoman tells us, "he believes government is spending too much."

Fair enough. He's probably right about that. But his other strategy to prevent the government from spending too much is to make certain that it spends even more - by jamming hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of earmarks into a bill that he knew would pass, despite his negative vote.

That's beautiful. You get to tell the conservative voters back home that you voted to hold the line on spending, but you still get yourself invited to the ribbon-cutting ceremony to show people you are bringing money home to the district.

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Last year, on his own and in conjunction with other lawmakers, Bartlett requested $34 million in earmarks, according to the watchdog group LegiStorm. That doesn't sound like someone who believes government "is spending too much."

I have no particular problem with earmarks, or wouldn't if they were debated in the light of day. The problem with earmarks isn't so much the dollar value - they represent a fraction of the federal budget. And many earmarks go toward useful and necessary projects.

The disagreeable side of earmarks is that they can slip through the system so quietly. As such, they can be used to return a favor and benefit the few, without regard for the greater policy implications, or consideration of whether the project is in proportion to the public good it will do - witness the Bridge to Nowhere.

As evidence of the confusion, Bartlett's office itself seemed foggy on the details for a $95,000 earmark for an initial study of a proposed "Hagerstown Area Northeast Bypass" project.

The grant was penciled in for the City of Hagerstown, but it was the first time the city had heard of it. It later turned out the listed recipient was in error; instead, it was money for Washington County stemming from a request the county made two years ago, according to County Administrator Greg Murray.

While the route has been discussed in past commissioners meetings, it certainly has not been debated among the public to the same degree as other proposed highway projects, such as the Robinwood or Funkstown bypasses.

The House Appropriations Committee did provide a document stating that the study was for a "regional limited access highway spanning from the eastern to northern portions of the Hagerstown, Md., vicinity."

Bartlett's office said it will run from Interstate 70 east of Hagerstown to Interstate 81 north of the city. The county says it would run from I-70 to Showalter Road, but would not connect to I-81. It would seem weird to run a four-lane highway from I-70 almost, but not quite, to I-81. Unless it's going to be a highway to the airport.

Because earmarks are so intentionally opaque, there is little to indicate to what degree this route has been planned out. Limited access implies four lanes, so it would cut a pretty wide swath.

And it would seem that such a right of way couldn't go too close to the city, or it would plow through an unacceptable number of developments.

But if it's further removed into the countryside, what impact will it have on our farmland preservation goals? And how does this project rank among our other traffic concerns, some of which may be viewed as more pressing?

It is arguable, of course, that the above questions are ones that the study is designed to answer. It's also arguable that a northeast bypass would be a useful asset. More often than not, this county has suffered from building roads too late instead of too soon.

Still, a project of this scope, of this impact, is probably best viewed in the light of day sooner rather than later - if nothing else than to protect the promoters against charges of railroading a project into defacto existence before all sides have been given a voice.

We are a government of the people, not a government of the earmark. When a project of this scope and significance seeks quiet funding avenues, it's bound to raise suspicions, valid or not. It might be worthwhile if the commissioners told us in more detail what's on their minds.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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