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Pottsville Republican-Herald - "'Ed McMahon Syndrome'? Gilhooley, Holden Voice Differences Over Earmarks"

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Location: Pottsville, PA

Pottsville Republican-Herald - "'Ed McMahon Syndrome'? Gilhooley, Holden Voice Differences Over Earmarks"

Congressional earmarks have sparked a war of words between U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, D-17, and his likely November opponent, Republican Toni Gilhooley, who claims Holden may have a new, previously unheard of problem, something she called "Ed McMahon Syndrome."

"Ed McMahon is the guy walking around with the big cardboard checks," said Gilhooley, a Dauphin County native who served 25 years with the Pennsylvania State Police.

Holden ranks fourth among U.S representatives from Pennsylvania in earmarks — one percent of the federal budget set aside for specific projects in congressional districts — according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent budget watchdog group.

The projects can range from road repairs to museums, according to group members.

Holden brought home more than $15 million for projects in the 17th District last year, according to the watchdog group.

The 17th District includes Schuylkill, Berks, Dauphin, Perry and Lebanon counties.

The earmarks are often presented in the form of a large cardboard check.

"I'm proud of every earmark," Holden said Wednesday. "There's a vetting process that is open and transparent."

The $15 million refers only to money obtained exclusively by Holden. In joint efforts with other congressmen, he was responsible for more than $34 million in earmarks last year, according to the group.

A recent example was Holden's $185,000 to train truck drivers at the Schuylkill Technology Center's Airport Campus in Foster Township.

The money, picked from the one percent of the federal budget, will be used to pay tuition for 37 drivers.

"Tim gets a blessing to help 37 guys learn how to drive a truck," Gilhooley said. "That's inequitable. Congress should not decide which 37 get and which 37 don't. We need to have a moratorium on earmarks."

The U.S. Senate disagrees.

In a 2009 budget amendment vote last week, the Senate voted 71-29 against a one-year moratorium on earmarks.

While many of the projects are worthwhile, others shouldn't be funded through federal tax dollars, according to Gilhooley.

She cited several earmarked projects, including a National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Texas and the National Mule and Packers Museum in California, that she said would outrage citizens if they knew their tax dollars helped fund such projects.

"I don't want to pay for the Texas Cowgirl Museum," Gilhooley said.

In December 2007, Holden brought back $146,000 for a proposed Pennsylvania State Police Museum in Harrisburg.

Holden's often used defense of earmarks centers around the rural district he serves.

Without earmarks, he says, money would be funneled to areas like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, while Schuylkill County would be largely ignored.

According to the Sunlight Foundation, a congressional watchdog group dedicated to government transparency, federal agencies have their own regulations on how money would be distributed even if earmarks went by the wayside.

"Whether or not the money would come back to the district is hard to say," Bill Allison, a senior fellow with the foundation, said Wednesday.

Gilhooley also criticizes Holden for having his name on the check when he's only returning taxpayer money back to the district.

"That's right. I'm returning money to the district," Holden said.

Allison called congressmen signing their own name on the check "over the top."

"It's not the member of Congress writing from his or her own checkbook," he added. The more powerful a congressman, the more earmarks he can bring home for his district, according to Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at Penn State University.

"There's definitely a lot of abuse (with earmarks)," Baumgartner said Wednesday. "There are a lot of projects that get funded because of a powerful congressman. It sounds like it's wasteful when it's in someone else's district."

Holden said the money would be claimed by other congressmen for their own districts if he didn't fight for it.

"It (earmarks) does not increase the deficit," Holden said. "We agree on a budget number with the president and it is the responsibility of every congressman" to fight for money for his district.

"It's astonishing," Gilhooley said. "All spending above receipts increases the deficit. It's amazing that after 16 years, he (Holden) doesn't understand that."

Gilhooley does not have a specific plan on what would replace the earmarking process. She said a moratorium could be used to hash out a better way to appropriate money.

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