The New York Times

Pet Projects Are Flourishing in Congress

 

By EDMUND L. ANDREWS and ROBERT PEAR, From nytimes.com August 4, 2007

 

WASHINGTON -- If the idea was to shame lawmakers into restraint, it did not work.

Eight months after Democrats vowed to shine light on the dark art of “earmarking” money for pet projects, many lawmakers say the new visibility has only intensified the competition for projects by letting each member see exactly how many everyone else is receiving.

So far this year, House lawmakers have put together spending bills that include almost 6,500 earmarks for almost $11 billion in local projects, half of which the Bush administration opposed.

The earmark frenzy hit fever pitch in recent days, even as the Senate passed new rules that allow more public scrutiny of them.

Far from causing embarrassment, the new transparency has raised the value of earmarks as a measure of members’ clout.  Indeed, lawmakers have often competed to have their names attached to individual earmarks and rushed to put out press releases claiming credit for the money they bring home.

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has obtained about $63 million worth of projects, most of them in or near her district in San Francisco.  But Ms. Pelosi was overshadowed by Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, who obtained $163 million in pet projects — more than anyone else in Congress and more than his own previous record of about $100 million.

To be sure, the Democratic totals are less than half than the record set by Republicans when they controlled Congress in 2005, but they are far higher than the levels just 10 years ago.

Among the thousands of earmarks tucked into House or Senate spending bills:  $2.6 million for a new grape genetics research center at Cornell University; $738,000 to study cancer-fighting chemicals in raspberries at Ohio State University; a contract for Texas A&M University to study the “root causes” of post-traumatic stress disorder; and $3.6 million to design a Coast Guard Operations Systems Center in Kearneysville, W.Va.

Aside from the risk of spending money on projects only because they make political sense, critics warn that earmarks fritter away significant parts of Congressional time and make it harder for government agencies to focus on long-term goals.  They have also become a tool for bargaining in Congress, offered to persuade lawmakers to vote against their own judgment on other issues.

When Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, recently ridiculed a provision on the House floor to spend $100,000 on a prison museum near Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Representative Nancy Boyda of Kansas jumped to promote her district’s heritage.

Leavenworth County, she boasted, had more prisons than any other county in America.  Its inmates, she added, have included Machine Gun Kelly and the Birdman of Alcatraz (before he was sent to Alcatraz).

“The local residents are proud of their heritage, and rightly so,” Ms. Boyda told Mr. Flake during a debate on the House floor.  The House voted 317 to 112 to keep her earmark.

Mr. Flake met similar defeat trying to block $50,000 for the National Mule and Packers Museum in Bishop, Calif.; $150,000 for the Burpee Museum of natural history in Rockford, Ill.; $250,000 for the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser, Wash.; and $750,000 for the Alliance for NanoHealth in Houston.

“Everybody hates earmarks, but everybody loves earmarks,” said Representative José E. Serrano, a New York Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on financial services.

“What’s happened is that the system is more open to the public, to the press and indeed to other members,” Mr. Serrano said.  “Of course, when it becomes open to other members, everybody looks around and says, ‘Oh, I could have gotten that for myself.’ ”

It was not supposed to turn out this way.  Last year, Democrats denounced the explosive growth of earmarks as a central part of what they called the “culture of corruption” under the Republican-led Congress.  They skewered the infamous $200 million “bridge to nowhere” that Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, had tried to finance.  Just this week, federal investigators searched Mr. Stevens’s house in Alaska on suspicion that he had received renovation work from a company that he helped with an earmark.

Last year’s outcry against earmarks was fueled in part by scandals surrounding Jack Abramoff, the disgraced former lobbyist.  The concerns were heightened by the conviction of Representative Randy Cunningham on charges of taking millions of dollars in cash and gifts in exchange for inserting earmarks for a military contractor.

Ms. Pelosi never called for eliminating earmarks.  Instead, she and other Democratic leaders sought to make the process open to more public scrutiny.

By any measure, the volume of earmarks in spending bills has exploded in the past decade, from about 3,000 in 1996 to almost 16,000 in 2005.

“Earmarks aren’t inherently evil,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit research group that monitors them closely.  “But they have grown to such an extent that there hasn’t really been any oversight.”

But even critics acknowledge that the Democrats have made the system less secretive and slightly less of a free-for-all.

Under rules the House adopted this year, all earmarks in a bill are supposed to be collected onto a single list in the report that accompanies the bill.  Lawmakers must also file a “certification” that attaches their name to a proposed project, discloses the organization that will receive the money and declares that neither the lawmakers nor their spouses has a financial stake in it.

In practice, the disclosures can be difficult to read and incomplete.  In addition, the certifications only declare that lawmakers and their spouses have no financial conflict; they are silent about financial ties that other relatives may have.

Some Republicans have scorned the changes as inadequate.  “We’re lying to the American people when we say we’re fixing earmarks when we’re not,” said Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, during debate this week on the Senate floor.

But Democrats respond that the changes are a big improvement.  “This is just sour milk,” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said of Mr. Coburn.  “If he could have blocked the whole bill, he would have.”

As in the past, a big percentage of earmarks this year went to the House leadership, including Speaker Pelosi, according to calculations by The New York Times and based on records assembled by Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Continuing another longtime practice of Republicans and Democrats alike, a disproportionate share of projects went to the so-called cardinals who chair each of the appropriation subcommittees.

Many lawmakers say the increased openness has put the cardinals, like Mr. Murtha, in an awkward position.  Because everyone can see who is receiving what, rank-and-file members are clamoring for their districts to obtain a bigger share of the goodies.  Similarly, constituents in home districts are becoming bolder as the earmarking process becomes less mysterious.

“Democracy is a contact sport, and I’m not going to be shy about asking for money for my community,” said Ms. Boyda of Kansas, who is being given the money for the prison museum.  “My guess is that next year I’m going to be putting in more earmarks.”

All of it is causing heartburn for Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, who recently complained that lawmakers increasingly saw themselves as “A.T.M. machines for our districts” and spent less time on genuine policy issues.

Even some enthusiastic supporters of earmarks have been taken aback by the flood of requests from lawmakers.

Mr. Serrano, the subcommittee chairman, said he was stumped on how to decide among requests from more than 100 lawmakers.

Instead of trying to weigh one project against another, he said, he identified all the projects that appeared suitable and then split the money so that each lawmaker received $231,000 in earmarks from his subcommittee.

“It was the fairest approach I could take,” Mr. Serrano said.  “The jury is still out on whether this is the right approach.  I’m not saying I will do it again next year.”

Ron Nixon contributed reporting.

 

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