Specter's pet project: Sexual abstinence
By: Carrie Budoff Brown
October 31, 2007 06:28 AM EST
A glance at the earmarks secured by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in recent years prompts the question: Does Pennsylvania have a problem with sex?
The senator, who supports abortion rights, is turning the state into the abstinence-earmark capital of the country, directing more than $8 million into dozens of programs and, in the process, arching more than a few eyebrows.
He’s done it again this year, setting aside $1 million for an
The reason Specter does it offers insight into the political machinations behind — and the abiding allure of — the narrow-interest spending requests maligned by fiscal watchdogs but desired as much as ever by members of Congress.
Specter views the abstinence earmarks as a response to “a significant segment of his constituency, which he believes is entitled to implement programs most consistent with their values,” the senator’s chief of staff, Scott Hoeflich, said in a statement.
But those familiar with
The five-term senator is renowned for his refusal to leave even a pebble of support unturned. And, critics say, the use of abstinence earmarks is merely an extension of his
“It’s another example of why earmarks are so problematic,” said Larry Frankel, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “They can be used to pry and curry favor with constituents based on political expediency rather than a demonstration that the earmark is the best use of money.”
Specter, as a longtime leading appropriator and ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, has fielded this type of criticism before, and he dismisses it. His staff vets the applicants and “makes decisions based on what creates good policy for
Specter secured 188 individual earmarks this year — more than any other senator — in the Labor-HHS bill, which passed the Senate last week and must be reconciled with the House version.
In total dollars, though, he trails other subcommittee members with $19 million, according to a database maintained by two nonpartisan groups, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Sunlight Foundation.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the subcommittee chairman, collected $60 million. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), despite his entanglement in a federal corruption probe that appears to be focused on his appropriations work, snagged $51 million. The 15 members of the subcommittee claimed half of the bill’s $560 million in earmarks.
Specter’s abstinence-minded politics have become an annual ritual. And even though he also favors comprehensive sex education, which includes information on contraception, his support for no-sex-until-marriage education is generating the attention. Taxpayers for Common Sense highlighted a $30,000 earmark this year for the program A+ for Abstinence, a repeat recipient that runs a website called Coolvirginity.com.
One liberal blog headlined a recent entry, “Arlen Specter REALLY doesn’t want you having sex.”
The senator ramped up his advocacy for abstinence programs in 2003, around the time that
It was also at this time that Specter began his 2004 primary fight against Pat Toomey, then a
But Pennsylvanians also like knowing what their senators have delivered for them lately, and this is where the earmarks come in.
Specter plays up his skills like few others. He puts out press releases announcing each funding request. During campaigns, he runs TV ads tailored by region, highlighting the money received by local hospitals or businesses.
The abstinence programs are just part of the Specter tableau.
Through 2003 and 2004, when he secured almost $7 million in earmarks, Specter attended a teen abstinence ceremony, touted his support of abstinence programs to conservative audiences across the state, and convened a field hearing in
“Abstinence education has demonstrated its value in a society where there is so much concern about the morality of the young people and access to abortions,” Specter said at the hearing. “It is plain that if we can persuade young people to avoid premarital sex and unintended pregnancies, there will be an enormous step forward.”
Whether abstinence education actually achieves that is a point of contention. Each side points to studies that buttress their arguments.
With Specter vowing to seek reelection in 2010, fiscal watchdogs suspect politics is a motivator, at least in part, behind the latest batch of earmarks.
Some of the groups boast political connections.
The Urban Family Council, which has received $250,000 in earmarks in the past and could collect $80,000 this year, was founded by a
The Progressive Believers Ministries, a first-time grantee slated to receive $30,000, is headed by a pastor active in the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, which endorsed Specter in 2004.
And Partners for Healthier Tomorrows, which has accepted $100,000 in the past and could see an additional $25,000, was chaired by Robert Bensing, a GOP leader in the conservative stronghold of
Specter maintains that his staff chooses earmark recipients based solely on merit.
Brenda Newport, executive director of the Women’s Care Center of Erie County, said the senator was sold after visiting her facility, which has received $400,000 since 2003.
“He saw what we do,”
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