The only two constants in life are death and taxes. Congress has decided to combine the two by sending tens of millions of tax dollars, in lieu of flowers, to underwrite non-profit institutions named after recently deceased lawmakers, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. John Murtha (D-PA).

Both Kennedy and Murtha were larger-than-life legislative figures who irrefutably left their mark on the Senate and the House respectively. It’s not surprising that the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and the John P. Murtha Center for Public Service at the University of Pittsburgh (Johnstown) would be established. What is surprising is that both institutions are being federally funded to the tune of $10 million each, through earmarks in the defense spending bill being considered in the House of Representatives.

The descriptions provided by the lawmakers requesting these earmarks suggest these institutions are akin to presidential libraries. For instance, the Murtha Center will be “a highly accessible and preeminent archive and repository of Representative Murtha’s public papers.”Except that presidential libraries are privately funded. And this isn’t just seed money either, but an ongoing taxpayer commitment. The Kennedy Institute also received $20 million last year, which means Uncle Sam is picking up half of the predicted cost for the facility scheduled for opening in 2013.

What’s equally striking is that the funding has been stuffed into, of all places, the defense spending bill. Why? Because we’re spending so much on the military, these projects don’t stand out. A $10 million earmark in another bill would stick out like a sore thumb, but in the defense bill it fits right in. And these are hardly the only outlier earmarks in the bill, which also includes hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research, for instance. And while we are obviously not opposed to cancer research, why is it in a defense spending bill instead of going through the existing pipelines like the National Cancer Institute?

But we digress.

The funding of lawmaker libraries has also raised some eyebrows recently with news that corporations with business before Congress have been making large contributions to them, or to universities in honor of a specific lawmaker.

Energy companies Fluor and Duke Energy have been making contributions to the James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center at South Carolina State University, as Rep. Clyburn (D-SC) has pushed legislation funding new nuclear power plants, The New York Times reports.

A military contractor donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the University of Louisville in honor of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). McConnell later sponsored a $12 million earmark for the company.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) got into ethics hot water for using his congressional letterhead to solicit contributions from companies with business before his panel for a program honoring him at the City University of New York.

If someone wants to honor former lawmakers by naming a building or scholarship after them, great. And if someone wants to build a library or educational facility honoring a former lawmaker, that’s fine too. But corporations making large cash donations to a sitting lawmaker’s “edifice complex” or taxpayers getting stuck with the bill for namesake institutions by way of earmarks buried in random spending bills just diminishes the institutions themselves.

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Ryan Alexander

Ryan Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan federal budget watchdog. www.taxpayer.net

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