Congress' use of budget earmarks often justified but 'messy'
The spending that members of Congress add to the budget can be for worthwhile projects, but the donations that sometimes follow raise the potential for abuse.
Michael O'Leary / The Herald
Excavation and construction of biodiesel processing facility is under way at Snohomish County's Cathcart Way Operating Center.
Michael O'Leary / The Herald
Excavation and construction of a biodiesel processing facility is under way at Snohomish County's Cathcart Way Operating Center. The project is funded by a $344,000 earmark in last year's federal spending bill.
Workers are now tapping $344,000 in federal funding to prepare a site on Cathcart Way where locally grown canola seeds will be dried and crushed, then sent to be made into fuel for use in the county's vehicle fleet.
The money is one of more than 11,000 payments to specific projects, contracts and grants written into last year's spending bill.
In political shorthand, it's an earmark and it got there through the pushing and political prowess of several Washington lawmakers.
"Federal earmarks are what fund safety improvements to U.S. 2, the new training facility at the Naval Station and programs to fight meth," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
"It's my job to bring these dollars and the jobs and growth that come with them, home to our state," said Murray, who's gotten more earmarks than any other member of the state's congressional delegation.
Critics counter that many earmarks are wasteful or benefit lawmakers' political friends. Opponents' continual push to get rid of them is a constant source of tension in the nation's capital and gets even more heated in election years when the giving and goading pick up.
Reformers cite the request for $233 million to build the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska as an example of unnecessary spending. They point to the convictions of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, in an influence peddling investigation as reason for reform.
Once limited to the most senior and powerful lawmakers, or those on the Appropriations and Transportation committees, earmarking pet projects and grants mushroomed after Republicans took over Congress in 1995.
The House speaker then, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, saw earmarks as a way to help endangered Republicans keep their seats and to reward lawmakers loyal to GOP leaders.
Estimates vary, but earmarks went from more than 1,300 projects worth nearly $8 billion in 1994 to a peak of nearly 14,000 projects worth more than $27 billion in 2005, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group that opposes the practice.
Eliminating them would be a big mistake, lawmakers said. For the 535 members of Congress, they are the best means of delivering a slice of tax dollars to constituents, and, inevitably, political contributors.
They serve as a valuable counterweight to budget decisions by the administration as nearly every one is for something President Bush did not recommend paying for.
"Without earmarks, the president would have unprecedented power to determine where all taxpayer dollars are spent," Murray said.
Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said the requests he submits each year come from those living and working in the five counties, including Snohomish County, comprising his 2nd Congressional District.
"These are to meet the needs that are not being met or would not be met without the help of the federal dollars," he said.
Potatoes, not pork
These payments through contracts and grants go toward work as diverse as developing crops, designing and building weapons, expanding arts and fighting crime.
In Washington, for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, money will be spent to design a means of protecting Navy ships from underwater attack, develop a wine grape immune to virus, discover ways to breed new varieties of potatoes and improve treatment of cancer patients.
Millions of dollars are coming to combat the spread of methamphetamine in the state, expand Mount Rainier National Park and clean Puget Sound. Mountlake Terrace is getting money to help build a sewage treatment plant and the University of Washington's Bothell campus will get aid for training nurses.
Individually and collectively, the 11 members of the state's delegation hauled in tens of millions of dollars in aid in 2007.
Congress disclosed 11,234 earmarks totaling $14.8 billion in bills covering government spending this year, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group.
That amount is less than 1 percent of the federal budget, noted Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., whose 1st Congressional District includes Monroe, Lynnwood and communities in south Snohomish County.
Eliminating them won't reduce federal spending. It will just leave those dollars in the budgets of government agencies whose leaders would decide how to spend them, he said.
"These carve out a very small portion of an existing federal program, such as highway funding, which would otherwise be earmarked by bureaucrats in the executive branch," he said.
Most earmarks appear to serve well-intentioned uses, drawing little notice from the public.
Some wind up as lightning rods for controversy.
One of the more infamous is the $233 million in funding proposed for the "Bridge to Nowhere" -- a span to serve an Alaskan island with a population of about 50 people.
"Honestly that was not a very good request and in my opinion not the very best use of federal dollars," Larsen said.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, proposed it and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., tried to collect enough votes on an amendment to ax it and other earmarks, including $500,000 for the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle.
Murray made an impassioned floor speech defending the role and value of earmarks. She threatened a counterattack of erasing money for projects in states of those senators who joined Coburn. He failed to get a majority of votes, though in the end, the bridge did not get built.
"Senator Murray believes that elected officials understand their local communities better than bureaucrats in D.C. She was defending the rights of elected officials to advocate for their states," Murray spokeswoman Alex Glass said.
The next year brought the matter of Coconut Road in Florida to the forefront. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, inserted an earmark for $10 million for road improvements into a transportation bill even though the area's representative didn't request the money.
Subsequent news accounts showed one of the major landowners on the road contributed heavily to Young. No crime has been alleged. Questions were raised because of the timing of when Young sought the funds and when he received the donations.
Critics of earmarks say these are examples of lawmakers abusing their legislative power to fund pet projects and provide favors to friends.
Similar behavior reached criminal proportion with Abramoff in 2006.
He went to prison for, among other things, bribing public officials and Ney was among those implicated by Abramoff.
In 2007, Congress passed new rules aimed at stripping away some of the secrecy on the seekers and receivers of the money.
Lawmakers requesting an earmark must disclose the name of the recipient, the purpose of the money and declare they and their spouse have no interest in the project.
When appropriation bills are written, legislators will now have their names next to the earmarks they requested.
And prodded by the efforts of Taxpayers for Common Sense and other groups, the government now has a searchable Web site for grants and contracts that comprise earmarks.
This week, the two men battling for president, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., co-sponsored legislation to increase detailed data available on this site.
Inslee said the reforms add a level of transparency and accountability that has never been seen before.
"Sunlight is the best disinfectant," he said.
Change was inevitable
"There has been an absolute explosion of earmarks in the federal budget. There are lobbying firms in D.C. whose sole job is to run after earmarks," Larsen said.
These lobbyists interact more closely with lawmakers and many contribute greater sums to them than their clients. These relationships stir inquisitive glances no matter how innocent.
Take the case of Verdant Power, a firm that builds turbines to convert the power of tides into electricity.
Inslee, one of the loudest voices in Congress on the need to develop alternative sources of energy, helped the firm secure its first ever federal earmark -- $3.2 million from the U.S. Navy to study the potential of generating power in different parts of the Puget Sound.
Trey Taylor, the firm's co-founder and president, said they've created a variety of turbines capable of working various bodies of water. One of their projects is generating electricity from a river in New York.
This new research may uncover information to help provide tidal power at Everett Naval Station through the Snohomish County Public Utilities District.
Taylor said Inslee understands the potential of this exploration. But Taylor hasn't contributed to the politician.
"I personally am not going to get involved in any kind of currying favor because I can't afford it," he said.
His lobbyist, Damian Kunko of Strategic Marketing Innovations (SMI), is a frequent financial supporter.
Since 2004, he's contributed $8,700 to Inslee plus $1,000 to the political action committee run by the congressman. Last year he wrote checks for $2,300 on March 29 -- around when earmark requests were submitted -- and again Sept. 27.
Inslee's voice bristled at the inference Kunko's contributions affected his decision to seek the money for Verdant.
He said he submits earmark requests after evaluating their value on a national and local perspective.
"I've been leading a national effort to adopt a clean energy policy for the country," he said. "I am pleased to have the support of people around the country who are trying to make that happen.
"If I was in this to raise money, I wouldn't be trying to raise it from new energy technology companies," he said, noting much larger sums are given to other lawmakers from major oil and gas companies.
Kunko, a graduate of Washington State University and former Marine, noted that Murray and three New York lawmakers also backed this request.
"For the record, I have personally donated campaign funds over the past few years to members of Congress, such as Jay Inslee, who are showing leadership in promoting renewable energy policy and energy independence," he wrote in an e-mail.
"Also, because I grew up in the Puget Sound area, I am especially motivated to be part of an effort that could lead to new renewable energy projects, like tidal energy, in areas of Western Washington that are not well-suited towards traditional renewable energy production," he said.
Kunko has also given $6,600 to Murray since 2004 and wrote a $500 check to Larsen in March.
Inslee and Larsen helped SMI client Sound and Sea Technology of Edmonds receive a $1.6 million contract from the U.S. Navy to design a way to protect ships from underwater attacks.
Larsen and Murray were among those requesting a $1 million earmark from the Navy for Cortland Puget Sound Rope of Anacortes.
Too much is made of contributions coming from recipients, Larsen said. A lot of people who seek earmarks and get rejected still contribute, he said.
"The bottom line for me is if I don't believe in the project, I'm not supporting it," he said.
Earmarks 'really messy'
Deanna Carveth, the project manager for Snohomish County's biodiesel project, could not be happier at receiving federal funding for the biodiesel project.
Those dollars, with state and county funds, will cover the $1.2 million cost of the county-run operation.
A portion of the federal money will pay for paving an access road and concrete pad on which farmers will travel to deliver their crops. Another chunk will go to buy equipment to teach residents how they can turn cooking grease into a biofuel.
Carveth said it was not a simple task going after the federal aid.
"Earmarks are really messy," she said.
This one required filling out a lot of paperwork. She said an inch-thick stack of rules and regulations made clear to her the federal government is looking to avoid repeating past mistakes.
"It was never a guarantee we'd get this," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or firstname.lastname@example.org.