When the House passed a massive spending bill last November, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi made sure her constituents knew what they were getting.
“Pelosi Secures $115 Million for San Francisco Transportation, Housing, Science and Arts,” she proclaimed in a news release.
It wasn’t an unusual announcement. Like many of her colleagues in Congress, Pelosi for years has celebrated bringing home the bacon to her district.
But now -- as Pelosi prepares to take over the House after an election in which scandal helped drive Republicans from power -- she is promising changes to the controversial practice of earmarking.
Earmarks are spending provisions dropped into bills -- often anonymously, at the last minute and without public scrutiny. They were at the center of several high-profile scandals that undermined the GOP this year, when earmarks benefited special interests.
Pelosi has not been linked to any impropriety. And not all the federal funding Pelosi boasts about came from earmarks. But the presumed new House speaker has proved a champion practitioner of the earmarking process over the years.
During the last congressional session, her district received far more earmarks than a typical district, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog that tracks congressional spending.
Pelosi has helped direct tens of millions of dollars to subway and bridge projects in San Francisco. She has secured money to restore a historic schooner and convert the old San Francisco Mint into a history museum.
Citizens Against Government Waste, a critic of such “pork-barrel” spending, has calculated that Pelosi’s district received nearly $31.3 million through earmarks in the last two fiscal years.
Among the biggest earmarks identified by the group were $5.6 million for the UC San Francisco neurology department and $4 million for Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Both were inserted into the 2006 defense spending bill.
Three years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Pelosi had secured $1 million for the University of San Francisco’s Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good, which was started by her longtime advisor and campaign treasurer.
At the time, the 10-term congresswoman from California’s 8th District said the center had received the funding on its merits.
Pelosi has defended her earmarking, including at a news conference in March. “There are many earmarks that are very worthy,” she said. “All of mine, as a matter of fact.”
And she has reaped the rewards. San Francisco’s largest newspaper has extensively covered the millions of dollars in federal money she has helped bring home.
Pelosi says there is a distinction between earmarks for public projects, which she defends and are typically publicized, and those she calls “special-interest earmarks.”
“It is the special-interest earmarks that are the ones that go in there in the dark of night that they don’t want anybody to see, and that nobody does see, and that are voted upon,” she said in March.
Special-interest projects, which helped fuel several recent congressional scandals, are often anonymously slipped into spending bills by lawmakers at lobbyists’ behest.
Pelosi’s approach to the issue is certain to come under renewed scrutiny. In one of her first acts as speaker, she has pledged to crack down on earmarking.
“I would just as soon do away with all of them,” she told reporters this week.
This year, Pelosi was among those who assailed Republicans’ use of the practice.
And when the House adopted a rule in September requiring authors of some, but not all, earmarks to be identified, she called it a “political gimmick to make it look as if something is happening.”
The current Democratic proposal would not prohibit earmarks, but it would expand the requirement to identify earmarkers.
“It won’t take long for the American public to realize that Nancy Pelosi and company were all talk and no action on earmark reform,” said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
“Pelosi has been one of the biggest proponents and beneficiaries of pork spending.”
Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider dismissed the criticism, promising that under Pelosi’s leadership earmarks would not be abused as she said they were under the Republicans.
But budget watchdogs, who decried the GOP majority’s use of earmarking over the last 12 years, are watching warily.
When a group of them sent Pelosi a letter last week noting that they were encouraged by her “stated support for real earmark reform,” they closed with a warning: “We hope you and your colleagues will show the same dedication to enacting these reforms in the majority as you did to promoting them in the minority.”