Lawmakers go behind the scenes to save their earmarks
After Democrats won control of Congress, they moved to fulfill their pledge to crack down on the controversial practice of lawmakers slipping projects in spending bills without public scrutiny.
In February, they scrapped Republican-drafted bills loaded with earmarks and passed a bill that they boasted had none.
Among those celebrating the achievement was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who said that piecing together the $463.5-billion spending bill was difficult, “but we got it done without a single earmark.”
But the day after President Bush signed it, Reid wrote federal agencies to “strongly support the priorities” in the discarded GOP bills. “I believe they are essential to the nation and to my home state of Nevada.”
Reid was not alone in seeking to save his earmarks.
Lawmakers from both parties -- including Democrats ranging from the most senior, such as Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, to one of the most junior, such as Sen. Jon Tester of Montana -- pressed agencies to grant their spending requests, according to correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
The behind-the-scenes lobbying for projects stripped from this once “earmark-free” bill underscores how difficult it will be for lawmakers to curtail a practice that has expanded despite criticism that it is out of control. Already, lawmakers are seeking to replace lost earmarks in next year’s appropriations bills, although they have promised to be more open about it.
“What is ironic is that at the same time lawmakers were crowing about no earmarks this year, they were surreptitiously drowning agency heads in funding requests,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of earmarking and one of the few lawmakers who wants to end the practice, offered a simple explanation: “We’re addicts.”
The Center for Investigative Reporting requested documents from 13 agencies. Five responded: the Environmental Protection Agency, the departments of Labor, Commerce and Interior, and the Air Force. Those agencies provided 122 spending requests from 52 senators and 205 representatives between January -- after Democrats announced they would exclude earmarks -- and April.
Federal agencies must fund earmarks lawmakers insert into bills. With the earmarks eliminated, the agencies were free this year to set their own spending priorities. So, lawmakers touted their own requests to influence those decisions.
Reid wrote Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, a former Senate colleague, to ask him to support projects in the Republican-penned Interior bill, which included $200,000 for a Mojave Desert science center and $300,000 to help preserve historic buildings in the frontier mining town of Goldfield, Nev.
In a handwritten note, Reid added, “Call if I can ever help.”
In his letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, wife of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Reid also added a personal touch, scrawling: “P.S. I’ll keep an eye on Mitch.”
Jim Manley, a spokesman for the majority leader, said Reid and other members of Congress have strong views on how to spend federal dollars in their states. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with communicating these views to the executive branch,” he said.
Despite the taint attached to the term “earmark,” Tester said that he and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) recovered millions of dollars “lost when Congress didn’t fund specific projects, also known as earmarks.” Among the funding they secured: nearly $1 million for the Joe Skeen Institute for Rangeland Restoration at Montana State University.
Byrd, one of the Democratic spending bill’s principal authors, lauded the bill’s restraint. “The legislation does not include earmarks -- hear me -- the legislation does not include earmarks,” he said on the Senate floor.
But Byrd, chairman of the appropriations committee, who is regarded as a master of pork-barrel politics, then wrote the Interior Department to “strongly urge” funding for 13 projects in his state. The department funded seven, including more than $1 million for a fish hatchery for endangered freshwater mussels.
Byrd and other lawmakers have revived their earmarks in the new spending bills now moving through Congress. The senator, for example, inserted $125,000 for the International Mother’s Day Shrine building in Grafton, W.Va., in the fiscal 2008 interior appropriations bill.
Lawmakers from both parties wrote the Commerce Department seeking $13 million for the National Textile Center, a consortium of universities that conducts research to help U.S. companies remain competitive. The money was not provided.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) urged the Commerce Department to provide $500,000 for a marine education program that allows students with limited means to learn about Narragansett Bay. “Reed’s job is to advocate for the state, and that’s what he’s doing,” said Reed spokesman Chip Unruh.
These efforts to bring home the bacon contrast with the election-year pledge Democrats made to reduce earmarks, which numbered more than 13,000 and cost $19 billion in fiscal year 2005.
“They say, ‘We’re not doing earmarks anymore,’ but in fact, they really are, by intimidating agencies and departments that are dependent on Congress for their appropriations,” said Ronald D. Utt, a senior research fellow for the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin said the senator was “simply trying to alert the agencies to specific needs in West Virginia.”
Matt McKenna, a Tester spokesman, said his boss believed the projects he supported were worthwhile. “He wants the process to be conducted with transparency,” McKenna said. “The earmarks he doesn’t support are the ones slipped in in the dark of night, with no opportunity for public scrutiny.”
When Democrats won control of Congress last fall, they were left with nine unfinished appropriations bills from the former Republican majority. They decided to pass a single measure with no earmarks to fund most of the government through September, the end of the 2007 fiscal year.
It made for smart politics. Earmarks, often inserted in bills anonymously and at the behest of lobbyists, had come under heightened scrutiny after scandals involving now-incarcerated former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who referred to the House Appropriations Committee as “the favor factory.”
The explosion of earmarks under Republican control, such as Alaska’s $223-million “bridge to nowhere” connecting Ketchikan to an island with an airport and about 50 inhabitants, also generated public outrage.
The day Bush signed the Democratic spending bill, the White House budget director issued a memo to federal departments saying: “Funding decisions should be based on the merits.”
But critics say that it is difficult for agencies to say no to lawmakers who write their budgets.
“These agencies know who butters their bread,” Flake said. “They’ll be under a lot of pressure to accede to the requests.”
Although sponsors of earmarks will be identified in the current round of spending bills, the behind-the-scenes lobbying this year on the “earmark-free” bill made that process less transparent.
“In the past, there was at least a faint public paper trail in the report accompanying the legislation,” said Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Even that small shred of disclosure was greater than the letters and phone calls we are not seeing now. As a result, taxpayers may never know where and how much of their money was wasted this year.”
California lawmakers were among those petitioning for funds.
Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine), whose district would have received $1 million for a water project from the discarded House appropriations bill, appealed to the Interior Department: “I would ask that you call me personally if for any reason you are hesitant to provide funding for this project.” Campbell said he didn’t consider his action an effort to salvage an earmark. “It’s not an earmark because these guys can just say no,” he said.
Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville), noting that $1 million had been included in the GOP-drafted bill for a water project in his district, told the Interior Department that “appropriate deference should be given to the clear intent of Congress.”
Lawmakers’ appeals often went nowhere.
The EPA’s chief financial officer, Lyons Gray, responded to Byrd’s request for money for two West Virginia projects by noting that the White House had instructed no earmarks should be funded in the agency’s budget.
“EPA is committed to being a good steward of our environment and a good steward of our tax dollars,” he said.
Simon is a Times staff writer; Evans is a reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley.