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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.