WASHINGTON – To Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, the $14.3 million he won for Patuxent River Naval Air Station as part of the 2003 Military Construction Appropriations Bill will enhance “our nation’s fighting capabilities.”
To critics, the project is just another example of “pork, plain and simple,” as congressmen lean on national security fears to bring home the bacon in an election year.
Maryland is slated to get $110 million for military construction in the bill approved last week. Legislators added most of the state’s 18 projects to the original Bush administration proposal, which called for seven Maryland projects.
Five Maryland representatives have so far touted their role in getting a piece of the $10.5 billion pie.
Lawmakers defend their action, saying “Team Maryland” knows the state’s needs best and that supporting military improvements should be a top priority.
“Now more than ever, we need to make sure our military installations have resources they need to do their job and keep us safe,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who sits on the Appropriations Committee.
Mikulski and Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., jointly announced the $110 million for 12 Maryland projects, after the bill was approved this month.
In addition to Hoyer, Reps. Albert Wynn, D-Mitchellville, touted $37.9 million for “anti-terrorism/force protections upgrades” at Andrews Air Force Base and Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, secured $22.5 million to help Fort Detrick “win the war on terrorism, protect American lives, and improve our national and state economies.”
But critics said the projects have less to do with homeland security than with incumbent security.
“You could eliminate the federal departments because now Congress says where money goes,” said Ron Utt, senior research fellow for the Heritage Foundation. “It doesn’t matter if you need this for national defense. They’re looking for more money in their districts.”
Skeptics note that last year’s budget, only $881 million of the $20.1 billion in pork barrel projects was for military construction.
Citizens Against Government Waste President Tom Schatz said politicians are using pork projects to circumvent the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which was set up 1988 to determine which military bases are necessary and which should be closed down.
Funneling money into base upgrades makes closing them difficult and keeps money flowing into the district and votes flowing out, Schatz said.
Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, said the $6.74 million Hoyer won for the 15-acre Army National Guard Readiness Center at Patuxent River is a prime example.
“They don’t want to lose thousands of people on the base to closure and once you throw in good money, it becomes, `We just put up this facility. It’s brand-spanking new. Why would you want to get rid of it?'” he said.
But those getting the money disagree.
Maryland National Guard Col. Howard Freedlander, coordinator for the readiness center proposed for Patuxent River, said the project would re- establish the Guard in Southern Maryland after nearly 20 years of absence.
“We had to close our base in Leonardtown for budget reasons,” he said. “We wish we had not (closed it) and had a retained presence.”
The center would house up to 250 people and bring military intelligence, water purification and communications units to the St. Mary’s County base. Those units would help attract women into the Guard, Freedlander said.
“This gives us an opportunity to come back and provide skills compatible with the civilian world,” he said.
Hoyer acknowledged in a prepared statement that the projects would leave the base “well positioned for the next round of base closings,” but spokeswoman Stacey Farnen said that was not the reason he pushed for them.
“Mr. Hoyer is in closer touch with his constituents than President Bush,” she said. “Pork is an unworthy project; this is a national defense project. Making Maryland stronger is a good thing.”
Mikulski spokeswoman Amy Hagovsky said the senator’s seat on the Appropriations Committee does help get funds for Maryland, but that some projects are created at the Pentagon’s request.
But Sepp said Congress’ desire to appear that they are “doing something to help fight the war on terror” does not promote sound homeland security efforts, only re-election.
“The war on terror is being used to justify the pigs in a poke,” he said. “The burden of proof ought to be on the lawmakers to justify this.”