Despite pledges to change their ways, Congress is arguing over earmarks once again, those projects that usually benefit only one state or congressional district.

Share story

WASHINGTON — You’re talking big money to get rid of a tattoo.

According to experts, the average cost is $50 per square inch per treatment.

Tattoos can be large, and it might take five to eight laser treatments to remove a black-and-white tattoo; color tattoos may require up to 12 treatments.

So if you’re a defender of tattoo removal, you might say it’s a good thing the $410 billion spending bill Congress is sending to President Obama includes $200,000 for a small California program that helps people get their unstained skin back.

If you’re an opponent, you might say it’s a big waste of money.

“I would think under a personal-responsibility platform, if you were responsible for getting a tattoo put on you, you might ought to be responsible for getting it taken off, and I do not think our grandchildren ought to be paying for it,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Same old debate

Despite pledges to change their ways, Congress is arguing over earmarks once again, those projects that usually benefit only one state or congressional district.

This year’s twist, a fight over a tattoo-removal program that operates in a small clinic in North Hollywood, Calif., is prompted by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., the earmark’s chief sponsor.

He said the program, run by the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, wasn’t pork.

Since a nun opened the clinic in 1998, the program has helped nearly 12,000 clients remove their tattoos.

Dimitrios Alexiou, who ran the program for more than five years and now volunteers at the clinic, said the average age of clients was 30 and that most were in the job market and needed help getting their skin cleaned up.

“They’re caught between a rock and hard place,” he said.

“They want to be able to get jobs but they can’t afford to remove it, and they won’t get hired with the tattoos.”

Berman said the money from Congress would help buy a new laser-removal machine, which would cost more than $100,000.

He said nearly 90 percent of the clients served were former gang members who were required to log 48 hours of community service to earn three free treatments.

Alexiou said the money would benefit other states, noting that many of its tattoo-free clients end up getting jobs outside California.

He said the new money also would help the program expand its outreach, with staff members going to schools and community events to warn youths of the medical danger and stigma that could result from getting tattoos.

For Coburn, Congress’ self-proclaimed earmark hawk, the money for the tattoo-removal program is just the latest sign of a free-spending Congress that’s piling up debt on future generations.

Long list

Coburn offered a long list of questionable items that will be funded under the new bill: $1.9 million for the Pleasure Beach water-taxi service in Connecticut, $300,000 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia and $238,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society of Honolulu, which runs sea voyages in ancient-style sailing canoes.

However, he called the tattoo-removal program “my favorite.”

He said the bill contained at least $50 billion in waste, and noted the federal government is flat broke and can’t afford the pet projects.

The spending bill contains 7,991 earmarks totaling $5.5 billion, 40 percent of them from Republican lawmakers.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., had inserted nearly 100 earmarks worth more than $78 million in the spending bill, but supported an amendment offered by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would have stripped all earmarks out of the bill.

She offered no explanation and declined to comment.

The Senate approved the measure by a 62-35 vote.

Obama has vowed to overhaul the earmark process and boasted the stimulus plan had no earmarks. But he plans to sign the 2009 bill despite the earmarks, saying it’s last year’s business, since most of the measure was written then.

“I bet many presidents have signed bills that may not meet 100 percent of their desires,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

“This stuff should have been done before Sen. Barack Obama became President-elect Barack Obama and certainly before he became President Barack Obama.”

Additional information from the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press