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Should reps in Congress get the credit for district dollars?

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Members of Congress like money. They revel in it, because money is a measure of power and effectiveness.

They like raising it, because they need it to get elected and stay elected.

They like getting credit for money that flows back to the district — because that’s how they believe the voters measure how well they’re doing their jobs.

A favorite tactic of members of Congress during election season is giving themselves credit for those important dollars (or is it pork?) flowing back home. Watch the ads. The incumbents stand on their records, which include claims of “I brought a gazillion dollars back to the district.”

My District 29 congressman, the Hon. John R. “Randy” Kuhl, has done exactly that. His claims ought to be examined in detail, and although it’s hard work, there are ways to do that. You can do it with your representative’s claims, too.

Rep. Kuhl is running a TV ad that portrays himself as “Accessible, Independent, Effective” and reminds voters of the federal money he has brought to the district.

His ad puzzles me. In it he claims:

… I’ve had a lot of success. Financial help for every college in the district. $45 million for transportation projects like I-86 and Route 219 and $86 million for West Valley cleanup… The total? About $250 million. And there’s more on the way. [emphasis added]

Aside from the verb “had,” there’s no verb in his claim of success that articulates exactly what his role may have been in bringing home $250 million. How did he do it?

An examination of the approximately 300 press releases (as of Sept. 29) on Rep. Kuhl’s official House Web site suggests an answer or two.

For one, he used earmarks. But in many cases he simply associated himself with money headed for the district. His press releases vaguely express his role with wording such as “announces grant” (54 times in 2005) and “secures” or “helps secure” (73 times in 2005).

In 2005, he used plenty of earmarks in the Fiscal Year 2006 Transportation, Treasury and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill such as:

$3 million for Monroe County’s “intelligent transportation system.”
$250,000 for upgrades to Houghton College’s science center.
$158,000 for Alfred’s Sugar Hill Industrial Park.
$250,000 to restore a historic building at Elmira College.
$200,000 to construct Construction Industry Workforce Development Facility at Alfred State College.

And in the Fiscal Year 2006 Science, State, Justice and Commerce Appropriations Act Conference Report: $500,000 for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Olean.

There are more earmarks In the Fiscal 2006 Defense Appropriations bill:

• $2 million for the Infotonics Center in Canandaigua for photonics research.
• $3 million for the RIT Defense Modernization Sustainment Initiative program in Henrietta.
• $2 million for fuel cell development at the GM plant in Honeoye Falls.
• $3 million for ITT Corporation’s wavelet-based image management for classified research toward improved data collection.
• $17 million for the RQ-8B Fire Scout, Schweizer Aircraft’s (Elmira) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle program.
• $1.65 million for Virtual Scopics in Rochester for Oblique Angle Hyperspectral Image Fusion and Analysis for Change Detection targeting systems research.
• $1 million for Integrated NanoTechnology of Henrietta for its Bio-Warfare Testing program.
• $500,000 for Impact Technology’s Intelligent Engine Air Force research program.
• $1 million for a Defense Department program for research into nanofabricated materials that will potentially be conducted at Alfred University.
$4.5 million for research at the Infotonics Technology Center in Canandaigua.

Then there’s the $300,000 he “secured” for the Rural Justice Institute at Alfred University through the House Appropriations Committee.

Then there’s nearly $50 million earmarked through the House Transportation Equity Act Conference Report for District 29 roadway projects.

Then there’s the Interior & Environment Appropriations Conference Report with earmarks such as:

$750,000 for Alfred University’s Center for Environmental and Energy research.
$750,000 for Corning’s wastewater treatment plant.

He shares “association” credit with other legislators. Members of Congress occasionally spread the vague credit around. Democratic congresswoman Louise Slaughter helped Rep. Kuhl “secure” $2.6 million for runway improvements at Rochester’s airport. And western New York representatives Slaughter and Republicans Jim Walsh and Tom Reynolds helped “secure” more than $56 million for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Then there are the fire grants Rep. Kuhl’s releases suggest he has arranged through the Department of Homeland Security. Thanks to Rep. Kuhl, his Web site claims, $2,060,852 in DHS money found its way to Fillmore, Gates, Fishers, East Corning, Port Gibson, Chili, Wayland, Bolivar, Naples, Horseheads, Penn Yan, Scio, Canisteo, Avoca, Bellona, Lyndon, Canandaigua, Shortsville and Humphrey.

And that’s just 2005.

In 2006, so far, he has associated himself (“secured,” “helped secure,” “voted for,” “announced grant”) in press releases with $30,590,601:
$10 million to buy aircraft from Schweizer in Elmira.
$1.2 million for a defense systems initiative at Rochester Institute of Technology.
$83,464 to teach Mandarin Chinese in three Hornell schools.
$125,000 for a Chemung River sewer project.
$150,000 for an Olean sewer project.
• more than $4 million for other district economic and infrastructure projects.
$250,000 to assist the Seneca Nation’s tribal justice system.
$297,350 for improvements to Hornell’s airport.
$240,000 for wireless Internet at Keuka College.
$200,000 for technology upgrades at Thompson Health, a health-care provider.
$280,535 for improvements at Penn Yan’s airport.
$946,704 for renovations at the Elmira/Corning Regional Airport.
$200,000 for Alfred State’s court reporting program.
$450,000 for Monroe Community College to train first-responders.
$250,000 for Nazareth College for math and science equipment.
$1.8 million for Corning’s research into glass armor for troops.
$3 million for Impact Technologies to research engines for the Air Force.
$2.7 million for RIT to research defense systems.
$1 million for improvements to Rochester’s airport.
$250,000 for an academic commons project at St. Bonaventure University [disclosure: I teach at Bonaventure].
$500,000 for repaving at Elmira College’s athletic center.
$250,000 to renovate an historic building at Keuka College.
$1 million to protect a Monroe County reservoir from terrorist attacks.
$462,437 for improvements at Olean’s airport.
$98,686 to remove obstructions at Canandaigua’s airport.
$52,000 for a regional planning commission.
$661,580 for improvements to Erwin’s airport.
• and $142,845 in fire grants to Arkport, Franklinville and Montour Falls.

Not everyone buys his claims of authoritative massaging of federal money. For example, The United Auto Workers union at Schweizer Aircraft says Rep. Kuhl took too much credit for bringing federal contracts on the Blackhawk helicopter to the plant.

A Nov. 9, 2005, release said Rep. Kuhl “secured” $86 million for operations at the West Valley Demonstration Project nuclear cleanup site in Ashford. He specifically takes credit for this in his ad. Should voters find that claim credible?

The project has been around since 1980. A 2004 press release from Sen. Chuck Schumer says that “Schumer helped secure over $40 million in federal funds with Sen. Clinton, Reps. Reynolds, Quinn and Houghton …” In a 2005 Business First story, Sen. Hillary Clinton associated herself with a share of the credit for West Valley’s operation: ” … I have introduced legislation with Senator (Charles) Schumer …” for West Valley funding.

So why does Rep. Kuhl’s ad suggest that he can claim sole credit for the $86 million for the project? Did the Department of Energy’s regional and national budgeting processes play no role at all? This drama has many actors, not just Rep. Kuhl.

Examine the fire grants he “announced,” particularly in early 2005. First, look at the Department of Homeland Security’s multi-step submission process. Imagine the time needed to complete an application — many months; perhaps a year.

Yet Rep. Kuhl “associated” himself with $108,000 by “announcing” a fire grant barely six weeks into office. How’d he do that? (We know, of course, how. Federal bureaucrats earn job security by allowing members of Congress to “announce” grants and funding for their districts, even if the members had nothing to do with them.)

If Rep. Kuhl figured authoritatively in the acquisition of $250 million for District 29, where’d he find the time to do that? He had to find time to raise $1,219,904 (as of Sept. 30) to fund his re-election campaign against Democrat Eric Massa. True, the House met fewer times in 2006 than the “Do-Nothing Congress” of 1948. But Rep. Kuhl presumably had committee meetings, subcommittee meetings and other congressional obligations. Where did he find the time to directly shepherd $250 million into the district?

Rep. Kuhl has been a professional politician since 1980 — but he’s a freshman member of Congress. Where’d he develop all the necessary contacts to bring home $250 million? If he leaned on the extensive network created by his District 29 predecessor, former Rep. Amo Houghton, how can he take authoritative credit for all that dough?

What about his reliance on earmarks? How should voters view that? The corporations, institutions and towns that received money no doubt welcome it. But others, both inside the district and out, might view that money as pork.

“I am committed to fiscal discipline while responding to America’s needs,” he said on Nov. 17, 2005, after his vote for the Deficit Reduction Act. Depending on what you view as pork, congressional earmarks, such as those used by Rep. Kuhl in obtaining money for the district, might be considered ill-considered and wasteful. But pork-barrel politics is a required skill for a professional politician. Should voters measure Rep. Kuhl’s use of earmarks against his stated commitment to fiscal discipline?

Recall the last line of Rep. Kuhl’s ad: “And there’s more on the way.” And what would that be? More taking credit by associating himself with something he did not do?

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

October 20, 2006 at 4:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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