WASHINGTON AND LOS ANGELES — The Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center, a job-training facility in one of Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods, is threatened with receiving no federal money at a time of high unemployment -- simply because of its name.
The center has become a victim of a move on Capitol Hill to block funding for projects that bear the monikers of sitting lawmakers.
"It doesn't seem fair that rich private entities can get funded and this poor school cannot," said Rep. Waters (D-Los Angeles), who had a heated confrontation with Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) on the House floor last week over his refusal to grant her $1-million request.
The decision to deny funding for what critics call "monuments to me" comes as the number of projects named after their congressional benefactors has grown in recent years.
It used to be buildings were named after deceased lawmakers. But now all kinds of projects can be found named for the living: the Jerry Lewis Family Swim Center in San Bernardino, the Congressman David Dreier Water Treatment Facility in Baldwin Park and the James E. Clyburn Pedestrian Overpass in South Carolina, to name a few. West Virginia has dozens of projects named for Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a master of pork-barrel politics: roads, schools, a courthouse, even a dam and a telescope.
"Too many lawmakers suffer from an edifice complex, where they direct taxpayer funds to projects or programs that burnish their legacy," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It would be one thing if it was their money, but it isn't. The public is right to be skeptical, thinking that these projects are more about lawmakers' egos than the highest and best use of our precious taxpayer dollars."
But to residents in Watts, the Waters center -- a cluster of colorful buildings off South Central Avenue -- is a sanctuary in a neighborhood where hope is scarce.
"In this area," said Eric Halton, who studied for his GED at the center, "that's the best we've got."
James Holdman, a mechanic whose granddaughter is studying at the center to become a nurse's aide, said that if the federal funding is denied, "it's going to deprive people in this community. That place has given an opportunity to those people who otherwise don't feel like they have a chance to improve their lives." Holdman added that Capitol Hill politicians should visit Watts -- where the unemployment rate is nearly 50% -- before making decisions about funding for the center.
"They've never been over here," he said. "Maxine Waters has been in this community. She used to walk these streets and talk with these people."
Still, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), a leading critic of funding projects named after current congressional members, expressed concern about the "perception that these projects receive special treatment because of the names they bear."
Several lawmakers with projects named for them said they had nothing to do with securing the honor. But the projects have drawn increased scrutiny because of pledges by President Obama and members of both parties to crack down on lawmakers' earmarking of taxpayer funds to their districts.
Obey decided to prohibit funding for earmarks named after sitting lawmakers unless they were on their deathbeds.
"Could there be worthy projects bearing lawmakers' names? Sure, but the risk is the project is getting funding not for what it does but for whom it is named," Ellis said. "So even though the center was named for Rep. Waters before she was elected to Congress, it appears self-serving to have her direct funding to a project that honors her."
Waters, one of Los Angeles' most enduring liberal politicians, was so furious over Obey's decision that she confronted him on the House floor as colleagues looked on.
The congresswoman said she told Obey that if his intent was to deny funds to lawmakers who have gotten projects for themselves in order to further their political goals, "that this was not the case for me."
Waters said she was upset that the center would be denied funding "at a time when unemployment in California and nationally is at record highs, and the recession is more like a depression for the black and Latino residents of Watts."
The center is "certainly not a pet project," said Waters, whose anger with Obey's decision was first reported by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
"Far from being a 'monument to me,' the MWEPC is a public school within the Los Angeles Unified School District, and the Los Angeles Unified School District would be the direct recipient of the funding.
"Chairman Obey was angry, and shouted that he didn't care about my plea," Waters said.
Obey spokesman Ellis Brachman said, "As chairman, you're required to make hard choices and do what you think is right for the institution."