When is an earmark not an earmark?

A quick look at earmarks and their effects in the U.S.

G Watts Opt Headshot

The report by Jonathan Karl focused on what are called "earmarks," or appropriations that are specifically listed as "congressionally designated" in a spending bill passed by Congress. The bill in this case was an omnibus spending package with a cost of over $400 billion. Karl said cost was driven up by "pet projects tucked into the bill."

One of the examples he gave was "nearly $3 million for poultry and blueberry research in Georgia, courtesy of Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Jack Kingston." He clearly implied that these were just wasteful, unnecessary "pet projects."

An important USDA project

Wait a minute. I am not an expert on blueberries, but I can assure you that the $2.4 million in the bill for poultry research is very well justified and long overdue. The item is the first small step toward bringing to reality a long-running effort to rebuild an important part of the USDA Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory in Athens, Ga. This is a high-biocontainment facility that will replace labs built in the 1970s that are now outdated.

Why do we need a high-biocontainment facility? Because it is essential to the research that will help us understand how to prevent or control diseases like highly pathogenic avian influenza and Newcastle disease.

Everyone in the poultry industry knows how dangerous HPAI, ND and other poultry diseases are to our flocks and to the industry itself. HPAI is, of course, lethal to birds. In the H5N1 epidemic that is still running in Asia, Africa and Europe, 260 million head of poultry have died or been destroyed. What is especially scary about H5N1 is that it can make the jump to humans. More than 400 human cases have occurred, with more than 250 deaths.

Fortunately, H5N1 has not developed the capacity for sustained human-to-human transmission. Scientists say if it does, avian influenza could be the basis for the much-feared pandemic of human influenza.

Food safety or Lawrence Welk?

Replacing the biocontainment labs at SEPRL has been on the short list of high-priority USDA projects for a long time. In fact, money to get started on the projectplanning and design workhas been in the president's budget for the past three years. Unfortunately, not everyone in Congress appreciates the important nature of the work and it has been substantially reduced each year. That's why Congressman Kingston, who is on the Appropriations Committee, had to put it into the bill as a "congressionally directed" project. But it isn't fair to lump an important scientific project into the same category as support for tourism in Strasburg, North Dakota famous as the birthplace of Lawrence Welk and the intended beneficiary of an earmark back in the early 1990s. Lawrence Welk was a fine bandleader, but he never helped head off a pandemic. The Athens lab was requested by the White House and USDA. How could it be a congressional earmark?

Entire Industry to Benefit

If SEPRL is a local "pet project," (which it is not), Congressman Kingston is doing a favor for another congressman's district, since the Athens lab is in north Georgia and Kingston represents the southeastern corner of the state. That's about as far away from Athens as you can get and still be in Georgia.

In truth, SEPRL's new lab is a worthy project that has been waiting for funding for years. The amount of money in question is a small down payment on a multi-million dollar project. Congressman Kingston and Senator Chambliss should be complimented for their patience and leadership rather than criticized by ABC News. This project benefits the entire poultry industry, not just the State of Georgia. The industry and Congress should support continued funding for this project until the country's premiere poultry disease lab is finally up to the challenges we face.

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