Earmark foes pledge support for regional research funding

Earmark foes pledge support for regional research funding

November 23rd, 2010 in News

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Newly elected Republicans may be swearing off congressional earmarks and pledging to cut spending when they go to Washington in January, but three of the GOP lawmakers-in-waiting said Monday they still want to continue funding for federal research across the Tennessee Valley.

U.S. Reps.-elect Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga; Scott DesJarlais, of Jasper, Tenn.; and Mo Brooks, of Huntsville, voiced support for military, space and energy research in Oak Ridge, Tullahoma and Huntsville. Collectively, the federal facilities spur more than $50 billion of direct and contract support in the region annually.

"We need to cut out waste, fraud and abuse in federal projects, but Americans don't want to cut national defense," said DesJarlais, a physician who defeated Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., in Tennessee's 4th Congressional District.

"When you are looking at funding facilities like Oak Ridge (National Laboratory), Redstone Arsenal (in Huntsville) or AEDC (the Arnold Engineering Development Center in Tullahoma, Tenn.), if you package it in a fashion that people understand that this is vital for national defense, then I think we can continue to get funding," he said.

Fleischmann, a Chattanooga attorney elected to succeed Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who ran for governor and lost, said the new Congress wants to stop individual members from designating federal funds for individual projects in their districts outside of the normal congressional approval process. But Fleischmann said he will "be a strong advocate" for federal programs in the region that are helping both the national interest and the local economy.

"I hope to continue to excellent work of Zach Wamp," Fleischmann said.

Bob Swansbrough, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor of political science who once worked with former Rep. Marilyn Lloyd, D-Tenn., said Wamp "was very effective in using earmarks to bring home the bacon" as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I think cutting out earmarks could hurt the 3rd District in Tennessee," he said. "It's always considered pork when it is in someone else's district, but it's a vital service when it is in your own district."

Wielding influence

The military built its first atomic weapons in Oak Ridge, and NASA developed America's rocket engines in Huntsville, in part, because senators from Tennessee and Alabama wielded influence over federal appropriations.

Those facilities, and related military bases and universities in the region, spend or contract for more than $50 billion a year in defense, energy and educational programs, Wamp said.

Shortly after he was elected to Congress in 1994, Wamp championed the vision of futurist George Kozmetsky who saw an emerging "technopolis" spanning from the rocket engine-building facilities in Huntsville to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in East Tennessee. Wamp said the region could become another high-tech hub similar to Silicon Valley in California, Research Triangle in North Carolina or the San Antonio-Austin corridor in Texas.

"Two generations of research and development is here and it has developed a hotbed for economic development in next generation manufacturing," Wamp said.

The Chattanooga Republican said the regional approach he launched through the Tennessee Valley Corridor summit in 1995 helped broaden congressional and public support for upgrades in Huntsville and Oak Ridge and won a top honor from the U.S. Department of Commerce in 2004.

Local development heats up

The Tennessee Valley Corridor is a nonprofit organization that gets no direct federal funding, although much of its support comes from government agencies or contractors such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Y-12 National Security Complex and area universities and defense contractors.

The corridor also positioned Chattanooga in the middle of the corridor to capitalize on 21st century manufacturing, Wamp said.

"I would argue that Hamilton County, Tenn., is the hottest economy in the Southeast United States right now," he said.

Volkswagen and Wacker Chemical are building $1 billion plants each in Chattanooga and Charleston, Tenn., respectively, and Hamilton and Bradley counties also appear close to each landing 1 million-square-foot distribution facilities, which together could add 3,000 more jobs.

Over the past decade and a half, Wamp expanded the original corridor to include portions of Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina and Middle Tennessee. The growth brought in Middle Tennessee State University, Virginia Tech and Homeland Security operations in Kentucky, among other federally funded facilities.

In the expanded Tennessee Valley Corridor, five new Republicans were elected Nov. 2.

"In the past, this corridor has enjoyed tremendous bipartisan support and, since there aren't any Democrats left in this area, I think it will enjoy strong partisan support from the Republicans," Fleischmann said.

Wamp said the corridor helped replace TVA's economic development when federal funding for TVA ended in 1995.

The freshman congressional class in the region may lack some of the seniority of the current representatives, but the corridor will have a strong ally from the Kentucky district of Hal Rogers, R-Ky., who is campaigning to become chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.