WASHINGTON — So much for trimming the pork.
The practice of decorating legislation with billions of dollars in pet projects and federal contracts is thriving on Capitol Hill — despite public outrage that helped flip control of Congress two years ago.
More than 11,000 of those “earmarks,” worth nearly $15 billion in all, were slipped last year into legislation telling the government where to spend taxpayers’ money this year, keeping them at the center of Washington’s culture of money, influence and politics. Now comes an election-year encore.
It’s a pay-to-play sandbox where waste and abuse often obscure the good that earmarks can do.
An examination of many of those earmarks by The Associated Press and two dozen newspapers participating in a project sponsored by the Associated Press Managing Editors found much greater disclosure since 2006 but no end to what has become ingrained behavior in Congress. Assisting the project were two nonprofit and nonpartisan watchdog organizations — the Sunlight Foundation and Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Millions of the dollars support lobbying firms that help companies, universities, local governments and others secure what critics such as Republican presidential candidate John McCain call pork-barrel spending. The law forbids using federal grants to lobby, but lobbyists do charge clients fees that often equal 10 percent of the largesse.
Earmark winners and their lobbyists often reward their benefactors with campaign contributions. For many members of Congress, especially those on the appropriations committees, such as Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., campaign donations from earmark-seeking lobbyists and corporate executives are the core of their fundraising.
Rules forbid lawmakers from raising campaign funds from congressional offices, but members and their aides sometimes find ways to skirt them.
“I know a bunch of members that if you go in to see them, somewhere in the conversation they somehow say, ‘Well, we were looking through our list of campaign contributors and didn’t happen to see you there,’” said Frank Cushing, a lobbyist with the National Group, which lobbies on appropriations bills. “Is there a quid pro quo? No, not directly, but you’d have to be pretty dense not to figure it out.”
The explicit campaign solicitations usually take place in the days following a meeting where an earmark is discussed.
“You can ask any lobbyist in town. You bring a new client in to see a member and everything is nice-nice and you have a good meeting and everybody’s exchanging business cards,” said another lobbyist who focuses on earmarks. “Within 48 hours, the clients and their lobbyist — me — will get a fundraising phone call.” That lobbyist requested anonymity, saying there could be no conversation on the subject without it.
For all the outcry, most earmarks have much to commend them. Just because a lawmaker arranges a project for his home district doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy.
But many also go to causes or projects that, on the surface, don’t appear all that necessary.
Anti-pork watchdogs, for example, point to the $1.8 million in five earmarks for Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, which ran $8 million in the black last year and has embarked on a four-year, $100 million fundraising campaign. With that kind of money, why should taxpayers fund a $400,000 program earmarked by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to help the aquarium conduct a program aimed at preventing juvenile delinquency, watchdog groups ask.
Despite such questions and public outrage over high-profile earmarking abuses, the system that now-jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff once called “the favor factory” is still running full tilt. Congress disclosed 11,234 earmarks totaling $14.8 billion in bills covering government spending this year, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group. The White House puts the total at $18 billion, including the amounts that lawmakers added to what President Bush sought for specific projects.
A new earmarking cycle begins this month as the House and Senate appropriations committees reveal spending bills for the 2009 budget year that starts Oct. 1. The House committee alone has 23,438 earmark requests before it, so many that its Web site for accepting requests froze up and the deadline for receiving them had to be extended. Lawmakers are unlikely to obtain many earmarks in time for Election Day, but they may tout them in hundreds of press releases anyway.
Defenders of earmarks note that the Founding Fathers explicitly gave Congress control over spending. And earmarks make up less than 2 percent of the spending bills passed each year.
“Representatives can better judge their districts’ needs than some bureaucrat,” Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., wrote to her constituents this year.
Critics say too many earmarks go to a few powerful lawmakers such as Murtha, who by himself and in concert with others earmarked $176 million in 2008 federal spending.
Most of the 440 members of Congress who are not members of the House or Senate appropriations committees go along in order to get a sliver of the pie, even as many of them cry out for change.
“Initially, with great enthusiasm, you fight for your communities,” said Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who says he’s sworn off earmarks until new reforms are put in place. “But the return is that you have to support the whole process and therefore, you’re supporting everyone else’s earmarks.”
Examples abound of lawmakers winning earmarks for specific companies or institutions, and then receiving campaign contributions from the recipients or their lobbyists.
TPI Composites, a defense contractor, received $2.4 million to develop a new all-composite military vehicle in the 2008 defense spending bill. The benefactor was Rep. David Hobson, an Ohio Republican who sits on the House defense appropriations subcommittee. The Columbus Dispatch reports that TPI executives have donated $10,000 to Hobson in recent years and that a TPI lobbyist has contributed $5,000 to his campaigns since 2003.
“I don’t look at how much money people have given me,” Hobson, who is retiring at the end of this year, told the Dispatch. “I don’t care who gives me money. If we don’t think (an earmark) is good, we won’t do it. At some point you have to say to yourself, ‘Do I trust the person in this office to do the right thing and stand up and say no at the right time?’ People shouldn’t have voted for me if they thought I could be bought.”
Earmarks come in countless varieties. Job training programs, grants to police departments, improvements to military bases, renovations to historical buildings and research grants for home-district colleges are just a few. They help pay for food banks and child care centers, sewer systems, roads and bridges, and equipment purchased by the Pentagon.
The most commonly accepted definition of an earmark is a specific project, contract or grant not requested by the President but inserted into one of the annual spending bills. Many of those bills often get consolidated into one.
Earmarks can do a lot of good. About 30,000 victims of leukemia and other blood diseases have received lifesaving bone marrow transplants through a donor registry program that Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., started through an earmark more than 20 years ago.
But Congress has been rocked in recent years by revelations of wasteful earmarks such as the $223 million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska that was supposed to connect an island with a population of just 50 or so to the mainland. It was never built.
Rep. Jim Walsh, R-N.Y., contrasts today’s earmarking culture to what existed before. Most of the pet projects went to a small clique of spending barons headed by Appropriations chairmen like the late Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., who used to call up Cabinet officials to order up earmarks.
“We democratized it,” Walsh said. “We basically said, ‘We’re going to make this available to all the members.’”
But demand for earmarks skyrocketed, and more and more lobbying firms sought to buy in.
Bush’s battle against earmarks began in earnest only after Democrats retook control of Congress last year. Now, rather than deal with him, Democrats seek to deliver an earmark-laden, catchall spending bill to his successor early next year. McCain has already promised a veto. Obama has said he would force cuts.
Democrats say they are cutting earmarks by more than 40 percent below the 2006 budget bills passed when Republicans ran Congress. As important, they say, are House and Senate reforms requiring sponsors of earmarks to disclose them. That’s made it easier for watchdog groups, reporters and the public to track the flow of lobbying influence and money.
Things may be changing. This year, freshman Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., gave back about $14,000 in contributions from people who had requested earmarks. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, told the AP that starting next year he’s going to stop asking for earmarks benefiting private companies.
Few, however, expect the pay-to-play system to shut down.