HONOLULU - U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, normally not a politician who seeks a lot of attention outside of election years, is proclaiming himself Capitol Hill's king of earmarks.
''It may please you or it may not please you,'' he told a gathering of business leaders on the Big Island on Monday, according to West Hawaii Today. ''I'm the number one earmarks guy in the U.S. Congress.''
Inouye and his colleagues in the Hawaii congressional delegation have long defended targeted spending provisions as a prerogative of Congress, to which the Constitution gives the power of the purse. They also contend they can better ascertain what their districts need than executive branch officials.
During Monday's remarks to the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, the 84-year-old senator described his earmarks as transparent and beneficial to the state. He cited the Army's Pohakuloa Training Area in the middle of the Big Island, which resulted in significant upgrades to Saddle Road, once a narrow, unsafe path that connects the east and west sides of the vast island. The senator helped dedicate the newest 6.5-mile section of improved roadway on Monday.
The amount of federal money the eight-term senator has poured into the project could not be determined Tuesday. But supporters said the improvements could not have been accomplished otherwise.
''It's a huge project for this island and we can't wait to get it completed,'' said Vivian Landrum, president of the Kona-Kohala chamber.
'I suppose that if I thought an earmarked project was frivolous, I might object. But from what I've seen, the funding that he's brought to the state has done a tremendous amount of good and much of it in the national interest.'
- Debbie Baker, Kona-Kohala chamber's chairwoman-elect
Federal funding for the road has not received much criticism. But other Inouye earmarks have, such as the $2 million that he and Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, secured for the Imiloa Astronomy Center on the Big Island.
''Why do we need $2 million to promote astronomy in Hawaii when unemployment is going up and the stock market is tanking?'' Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in March.
Inouye sponsored 324 earmarks totaling more than $2 billion in the 2008 and 2009 appropriations bills, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and Taxpayers for Common Sense, two Washington D.C. watchdog organizations.
Steve Ellis, vice president of the latter group, on Tuesday lauded Inouye for improving accountability on Senate earmarks, though more reforms are needed. But Ellis cited other comments the senator made about Hawaii projects he wants to finance before he leaves office.
Whenever Inouye departs, said Ellis, ''It's going to send a ripple effect throughout the state of Hawaii because the self-proclaimed king of earmarks is not going to be there anymore and the state is not going to have the juice to deliver anywhere near the amount of money it is getting currently.''
Some Hawaii residents object to earmarks by the state's congressional delegation.
''As the currency that legislators use to barter favors, earmarks always come at a cost,'' said Jamie Story, president of the Grassroot Institute, a free-market advocacy group in Honolulu. ''They give the federal government a foot in the door on issues that should be the jurisdiction of local government.''
In contrast, ''very lively applause'' followed Inouye's self-description Monday as Congress' top earmarker, said Debbie Baker, the Kona-Kohala chamber's chairwoman-elect.
''I suppose that if I thought an earmarked project was frivolous, I might object,'' Baker added. ''But from what I've seen, the funding that he's brought to the state has done a tremendous amount of good and much of it in the national interest.''