Politics

In Washington, Pork Trumps Preserving History

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(credit: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

(credit: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — One of the first victims of Washington’s new tough-on-spending culture is a historic preservation program that saved the flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” and preserved thousands of other fragile national treasures.

A pet cause of then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Save America’s Treasures” began in 1998 as a way to safeguard historical documents, films and artifacts such as the Montgomery, Ala., bus in which civil rights icon Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. The program died this month, the victim of raids by lawmakers who hijacked it to fund their own pet projects.

Capitol Hill’s powerful appropriations committees had taken over half of its budget to rejuvenate back-home movie theaters, old courthouses, schools and lighthouses in a process that rewards political muscle, not historical merit. President Barack Obama proposed terminating it last month and Congress obliged five weeks later.

“While there have been many high-quality projects, at least half of … projects are annually earmarked by Congress,” the White House complained in Obama’s budget proposal for next year.

GOP Sens. Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts of Kansas, for instance, won $500,000 in 2009 to help restore an old theatre as a way to help revitalize downtown Pittsburg, Kan. That same year, Michigan Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin obtained $100,000 to replace a sea wall to protect a lighthouse on Lake Michigan. And Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., obtained $171,000 to help restore a county courthouse.

The preservation program was killed off when Obama signed the most recent GOP-drafted stopgap government funding bill into law, which cut $6 billion from the budget in exchange for keeping the government open through April 8.

The program’s demise came just six weeks after the administration had proudly announced 61 preservation grants totaling $14.3 million through a merit-based evaluation process undertaken by several agencies, including the National Park Service.

Those grants included $150,000 for the John F. Kennedy Library to preserve Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House scrapbooks, $75,000 to transfer the New York City Ballet’s videotape archives to digital media, $26,032 to save three fragile Confederate battle flags, and $170,000 to conserve and make digital copies of 30 African-American scrapbooks owned by Emory University in Atlanta.

The grants, said first lady Michelle Obama, “will preserve the physical fabric of our history and the rich diversity of America’s story, as told by its artists, scholars and other notable figures.”

But with newly empowered Republicans renouncing earmarks and Obama threatening to veto any bill containing them, the program became an easy target. In killing it, Republicans noted that it was started in 1998 as a two-year initiative to prepare for America’s celebration of the 2000 millennium, but had continued in part because it found powerful advocates in Hillary Clinton and first lady Laura Bush.

Save America’s Treasures was also helped in no small measure by the desire of lawmakers in both parties to use it to earmark taxpayer money for their home districts and states. Of program grants totaling $300 million over the past decade to almost 1,300 different sites, half have been earmarks.

In many cases the earmarks represented just a small contribution toward a more expensive project, leading some to wonder whether the federal largess was needed or justified. For example, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., obtained $150,000 toward an opera house renovation in Derby that’s expected to cost more than $10 million.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., a member of the appropriations panel that funds Save America’s Treasures, won $150,000 in 2009 to help the town of Owego renovate a building housing its police department and town court, which he said would “spare Owego taxpayers from the full cost associated with this much-needed project.” Among the upgrades was helping the town comply with rules concerning access for the disabled.

Hinchey was back again last year and won initial approval of $700,000 for renovations of Binghamton’s Forum Theater, a fully functioning facility that advertises itself as the “area’s premiere facility for performing arts events.” Too bad for the Forum, however: The earmark died in December when an omnibus spending bill was shelved.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., won $150,000 to install a sprinkler system and other safety improvements at a community center for Czech and Slovak immigrants in St. Paul.

The merit-based awards announced in February were more in keeping with the program’s original mission to prevent fragile buildings, films, photographs and recordings from being lost.

For instance, there’s $25,735 to help a Schenectady, N.Y., museum use optical scanners to discover the contents of an 1878 recording by Thomas Edison that can’t be safely played. Another $57,425 is going to preserve a collection by war photographers Robert and Cornell Capa that includes a recently discovered trove of Spanish Civil War photographs. And $700,000 will complete an 18-year project to restore the only remaining Victory Class World War II cargo ship, while $222,128 is going to restore a Jim Crow railroad car at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

Critics of the program say that in an era of stark budget choices, even the merit-based awards are wasteful. In many instances they’re going to well-established and well-funded institutions like the Kennedy Library.

“That’s the question. In some of these cases, are we just substituting federal money for private money?” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based budget watchdog group. “You can’t tell me the John F. Kennedy Library can’t raise money.”

Neither the Interior Department, whose National Park Service oversaw the program, not the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which helps applicants meet the requirements for receiving grants, would comment on the program’s demise.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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