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Bucks for mule museum cause brays

  • Story Highlights
  • California Republican has requested $50,000 for a mule museum
  • Congress has requested $13 million-plus for museum-related earmarks
  • Democrats have vowed to make earmark process more transparent
  • GOP House leader pressing for more disclosure of 16,000 expected earmarks
  • Next Article in Politics »
By Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston
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(CNN) -- In tiny Bishop, California, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-California, wants to build a museum honoring the mule.

Bishop, California, celebrates "Mule Days" every Memorial Day weekend.

McKeon has requested a $50,000 earmark to explore the possibility of building a museum in the town that every Memorial Day weekend holds the biggest mule celebration in the United States.

It might sound preposterous, but McKeon is doing what many of his House colleagues are doing -- appropriating federal funds for pet projects back home.

McKeon has requested funds for studying the feasibility of building the museum and providing support for operations.

McKeon defended the earmark in a statement sent to CNN as supporting economic development in his district.

"Bishop is a classic western frontier city which survives on tourism. Adding a museum to its community will increase tourism by bringing sightseers and visitors to Bishop year-round, benefiting the area economy," McKeon's statement said.

"If CNN chooses to make a mockery of small-town, western heritage, that's its prerogative, but I'm going to remain focused on the economic development of my district."

According to congressional spending watchdog group Americans for Prosperity, House members this year alone seek to spend $13.7 million in tax dollars on 63 museum-related expenses.

And the requests aren't limited to one party. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, whom critics often call the "King of Pork," has asked for $150,000 to restore the W.A. Young and Sons Foundry to a "key historic property," according to a description posted on Murtha's Web site. Video Watch why taxpayers might be paying for a mule museum »

The Rices Landing foundry in Murtha's economically distressed district is right next to Gary Smith's home. Smith parks his car in front of the building because as he says "they got a tour in there [only] once a year."

Murtha declined to talk to CNN about his earmark requests.

That is not uncommon. Earlier this year, CNN asked House members to disclose their earmarks. Of the more than 430 members, 47 provided earmark requests, 68 said they would not release their requests and six said they had not made any requests. The others did not return CNN's request for a list of their earmarks.

Earmarks have been a political hot button for years. Commonly derided as "pork," pet projects are tucked into spending bills. In 2006, Congress approved a record $29 billion in earmarks.

Watchdog groups, citizens and the media have tried to figure out which members of Congress were asking for money to fund pet projects.

When Democrats swept into power in January, they vowed a more ethical, open and transparent government. Earmark reform was at the top of the list.

But the party leaders have struggled to make the earmark process more transparent. Democrats have agreed to attach names to earmarks -- letting the public know which representative is asking for what -- before votes on bills.

That will be a first, and Democrats have touted the move as a sign of their openness. But there is no law or rule that requires senators or members of Congress to release their requests.

In his statement, McKeon called himself a "staunch supporter of earmark transparency and accountability."

"A light needs to be shined on the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on 'bridges to nowhere' and projects that serve no real purpose, unlike our community museum request," McKeon said. "I do not shy away from, nor do I take any issue with, the public knowing that federal dollars went to support the economic development of a small town on the western edge of the country."

McKeon's and Murtha's requests come at a time when Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican minority leader, is trying to force reforms in how congressional members ask for and receive funding for pet projects.

Boehner is gathering signatures in hopes of forcing a vote to make public every earmark in every bill. Boehner said it would be unreasonable to force a vote on each of the 16,000 expected earmarks Congress will approve in this year's spending bills. But he said some amount of exposure will cut down on the more outrageous requests.

Boehner recently wrote an editorial urging his fellow Republicans to return to their fiscally conservative roots and stop asking for so many pork-barrel projects.

But he admits he has limited power, even among fellow Republicans.


"I'm elected to be their leader," Boehner said. "I'm not elected to be their dictator or lay out all the rules. All I can do is lead by example. I've never asked for one [earmark]. I think there's an incredible amount of waste. I'm doing my best to control it."

Democratic House leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the Appropriations Committee chairman, declined to answer questions concerning earmark funding. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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