Despite informal ban, Congress shows earmarks alive and well with Hawaii center

Congress showed us anew over the last year that an earmarking system that secures federal money for political pet projects is alive and well — despite a promised ban by lawmakers. In fact, such funding even can live on after the sponsoring lawmaker has died.

Take the case of the East-West Center, a nonprofit center in Hawaii that for years received tens of millions of dollars in federal funding secured by its favorite homestate backer, the late Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye. 

As a result of Inouye’s budget stewardship, the center survived several efforts to defund it, and even managed to get more money than the State Department requested for its efforts to study and enhance U.S.-Asia relations.

In 2011, longtime critics of the center nearly succeeded to kill its funding, but a last-minute move by the powerful Inouye secured $16.7 million for the center in 2012.

And though Inouye passed away last month, his generosity toward the center lives on: the center expects to get the exact same federal dollars this year because Congress has decided to continue funding government at 2012 levels rather than pass a new budget. 

For creating a system that has sustained earmarks — and allowed them to outlive their sponsors — Congress earns this week’s Golden Hammer, a dinstinction awarded by the Washington Guardian to examples of spending that sting the fiscal funny bone.

The nonprofit East-West Center was created in 1960 at the urging of a young Sen. Inouye, a World War II hero, to improve U.S. relations with Asian and Asian-Pacific countries.  The center brought students from Asia to study in Hawaii, conducted its own research and held events with prestigious speakers, like Secretary of State of Hillary Clinton who spoke there recently. And for decades, Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, secured its annual federal funding and routinely defied the State Department’s effort to reduce the tax dollars. 

Since 2009, the center has received roughly $81.6 million through the State Department budget. In 2011, for instance, it got another $23 million even though State had proposed half that amount a year earlier. And Inouye worked his magic again in 2011, even after the Senate imposed a supposed ban on earmarks and the House eliminated the funding.

His fiscal handiwork securing the $16.7 milion for 2012 — which he boasted about in a December 2011 press release — managed to exasperate fellow lawmakers who thought they had finally killed the funding after years of efforts.

“I am unaware of any major accomplishments that can be attributed to the East-West Center over its 50 years,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said during an intense 2011 appropriations debate that led the House Foreign Affairs Committee to vote to kill the center’s funding.

Citizens against Government Waste, a nonprofit watchdog that publishes an annual report of congressional earmarks, says Inouye is singularly responsible for the five-decade funding stream for the center. “Funding for the East-West Center might have gone south by now if it were not located in the chairman’s home state,” it declared last year.

Inouye made no apologies about securing the monies, saying many of the young Asian students who passed through the center later went on to be leaders in their countries. “For the little amount we put in there … we get a good return, good returns,” he said a few years ago.

The Center also boasts that taxpayers get their money’s worth. “We have been at the forefront of the Asia-Pacific region. Over the years we have been able to educate a number of people who have come into leadership positions in the region,” spokeswoman Karen Knudsen told the Washington Guardian on Thursday.

While the debate will certainly rage on, especially now that Inouye has passed away, the Center is, for the time being, counting on a fresh round of federal funding in 2013. 

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