Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has added tens of millions of dollars to a defense spending measure in earmarked grants for her top campaign donors, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis.
All but one of Mikulski's 16 funding requests were approved, making her the champion defense earmarker for the state. Final numbers won't be available until Congress completes action on the spending legislation later this fall.
Included in the senator's $42.1 million total is a combined $10.5 million for three companies, Northrop Grumman, Thales Communications and L-3 Communications, whose executives and political action committees have been among her most generous contributors.
Northrop Grumman officials and the company's PAC gave $57,900 to Mikulski's campaign and her political committee between 2005 and this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks political money.
That makes Northrop Grumman the largest source of contributions to Mikulski's re-election, according to the center's figures. The other two companies, Thales and L-3, also ranked among her top 15 donors.
The Senate bill contains $4 million for a Northrop Grumman radar system being developed by the defense giant at its Electronic Systems division in Linthicum. Another $4 million went to a radio project for Thales, a French company whose U.S. division is headquartered in Clarksburg. Mikulski also obtained $2.5 million for an L-3 Communications division in Lexington Park that is working on an antenna project for unmanned drones.
Mikulski, who is seeking re-election next year, said campaign contributions have no impact on her decisions.
"My top priority," the senator said in a statement, "is to ensure that Americans serving on the front lines have the funding, equipment and technology they need to protect our nation."
Foes of earmarked spending, including President Barack Obama, have sought to end the practice. In particular, critics object to earmarks that members of Congress direct to private companies, instead of requiring them to compete for military contracts.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a longtime opponent of earmarking, said during Senate debate on the defense spending measure this week that the Appropriations Committee had trimmed $900 million from Obama's request for Afghanistan security forces and $3 billion in military operations and maintenance accounts in order to fund $2.65 billion in earmarks by individual senators for projects that were not requested by the Pentagon.
McCain said that Congress continues to load spending bills with "wasteful and unnecessary" projects. While he conceded that some of the projects have value, "I protest the process by which Congress ignores priorities of the armed services so that members can deliver tax dollars to their constituents, for programs which may have nothing to do with the defense of our nation."
The defense spending measure approved by the House includes a $3 million earmark by Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Maryland for a DNA sequencing technology project at the University of Maryland "to better understand the genetic basis of disease." An Edwards spokesman said the research would be part of a joint effort with the Department of Defense, which received more than $600 million in earmarked funding for medical research from members of Congress this year.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted down a McCain amendment that would have stripped $2.5 billion for C-17 cargo planes that Obama and the Pentagon have said they don't want. Mikulski opposed the McCain initiative; Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland supported it.
Cardin succeeded in getting $21 million for eight projects. All but one of those, however, were also requested by Mikulski, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. Cardin failed to win funding for three dozen other projects, totaling over $200 million, most of which would have gone to private entities.
Members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, the final arbiters on earmark requests, traditionally receive a disproportionate amount of spending for their pet projects.
Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the top-ranking Republican on the Appropriations panel, received $216 million in defense earmarks this year, more than the entire Maryland delegation in Congress. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, was second with $206.5 million, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group that tracks earmarks.
In the House, $881 million in earmarks went to the 18 members of the defense appropriations subcommittee, while the remaining 417 House members divvied up a total of about $1.6 billion. No Marylanders serve on that panel.
Among House members from Maryland, Democratic Leader Steny H. Hoyer received the largest amount of defense earmarks. He had 11 requests granted for a total of $31.2 million, none of it for private companies.
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett was next with $15 million in earmarks. The state's lone Republican is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Bartlett received a $2 million earmark for a Northrop Grumman fuel efficiency project in Los Angeles. The company's political action committee has donated $47,500 to Bartlett's campaigns, propelling it into a tie for first place as his most generous donor over the years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Lisa Wright, a longtime Bartlett aide, said the Western Maryland congressman relies on his experience as a scientist in requesting earmarks and deliberately stays ignorant about campaign donors.
Bartlett "avoids anything to do with campaign funding," she said. His campaign organization routinely makes the names of his donors public, as required by federal election law. But the aide, asked if Bartlett knew that Northrop Grumman was a prime funding source for his re-election efforts, replied, "I sincerely doubt it."
The state's total amount of defense earmarks - $121.6 million - represents grants contained in competing versions of the $636.6 billion spending bill for the fiscal year that began Thursday. A House-Senate conference committee will eventually reconcile the differing versions, which could lead to some Maryland projects getting dropped or having their funding reduced.
Obama campaigned against earmarks in the 2008 presidential election, but his efforts, and related reforms by Congress to provide more transparency in the process, have produced only modest changes. The total amount of earmarked money in the defense spending measure is 11 percent lower than last year, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.