Water bill is flooded with earmarks

Times Staff Writer

Dramatic increases in earmarks -- pet projects quietly slipped into spending bills -- figured prominently in Republican scandals that helped Democrats win control of Congress last year.

But with Democrats now in charge, the practice is still thriving.

A bill the Senate approved last week to authorize water projects contains 446 earmarks, and the House version has 692.

The Senate bill was the first to come before the chamber since it adopted new rules this year on the practice.

Those rules require earmarks' sponsors to be identified, ending the secret process in which lawmakers anonymously inserted projects into legislation. Taxpayer watchdogs hoped the new guidelines would curb enthusiasm for earmarks. And they thought Democrats' decision this year to pass a funding bill without earmarks signaled a dramatic shift.

If the water bill is a sign of things to come, the appetite for earmarks remains undiminished.

"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss," grumbled Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an outspoken critic of pork-barrel spending.

Democrats appear to be relishing their majority status, which comes with the power to shape bills and attach special projects.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which drafted the nearly $14-billion bill, directed about $1.4 billion of the funding to projects in her state.

"It's good to be queen," quipped Steve Ellis of the Washington-based watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Boxer secured $25 million for revitalizing the Los Angeles River, more than double the amount Republicans had intended to put in their bill, which died in the last Congress. Boxer has said the project will transform the river from a "concrete eyesore into a beautiful asset."

The measure also includes millions of dollars for flood-protection projects in California, where aging levees may put the state at risk of a disaster like New Orleans.

Critics say Democrats, despite their election-year rhetoric, are now pursuing pet projects as vigorously as Republicans.

In the last decade, the amount of earmarked federal money has tripled. When Democrats came to power this year, President Bush challenged them to halve the number and amount of earmarks, from a record 13,496 worth $19 billion in fiscal 2005.

The Senate bill, with its 446 projects, has more earmarks than a version drafted last year when Republicans were in charge. That bill had 272.

"Just because there are earmarks doesn't mean that it's business as usual," said Jim Berard, spokesman for Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which wrote the House bill.

Democrats have taken steps to "ensure that the earmark abuse that has occurred in the past does not happen again," he added. "Earmarks can no longer be inserted anonymously, in the dead of night, to please a powerful lobbyist or political supporter. While this will not satisfy some critics, it is a major step toward reestablishing trust with the American public."

Indeed, the project sponsors in the water bill were identified. And senators, for the first time, signed statements -- posted on the Internet -- attesting that neither they nor their spouses have financial stakes in the projects.

Earmarking has become increasingly controversial as more federal investigations focus on whether lawmakers sponsored them for payoffs or to benefit themselves. The practice played a role in scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), both of whom are in prison.

It also generated public outrage after a $223-million earmark for a bridge connecting Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with an airport and about 50 inhabitants was slipped into the 2005 highway bill by then-House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska).

Controversy over earmarking erupted again last week.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) accused Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, of threatening to deny funding for projects in Rogers' district because Rogers had questioned a Murtha earmark. Rogers is expected to file a resolution this week calling for Murtha to be reprimanded.

Murtha's office did not directly respond to the allegation, but issued a statement that said, "The committee and staff give every Democrat and Republican the same consideration."

Appearing on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) defended Murtha, saying, "Congressman Murtha has -- enjoys -- an excellent reputation in the Congress on both sides of the aisle."

Senate approval of the water bill came as congressional appropriations committees have begun poring through requests from lawmakers to fund their favorite home-state projects.

For budget watchdogs, the number of earmarks in the legislation was an inauspicious start.

The House and Senate versions of the bill were overwhelmingly approved. Within minutes, lawmakers e-mailed releases touting their efforts to deliver federal tax dollars to their states.

"This legislation authorizes several projects, at my request, to benefit the people of Nebraska by reducing the threat of flood and mitigating the effects of drought," Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said in a statement.

The water bill only authorizes spending on water projects. Congress would still have to appropriate the money before the projects could move forward.

A few lawmakers complained that earmarking substitutes the wishes of politicians seeking to please constituents for expertise of federal agencies.

"It's not a good way for the federal government to operate when we're picking sewer plants and water projects all over the country," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). "Despite what we say, we're not experts."

But the bill's proponents argue that lawmakers, in consultation with local and state officials, know far more about what their states need than Washington bureaucrats. And they defend the number of earmarks, noting that it's been seven years since Congress last passed a major water resources bill.

"One of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina is that we ignore our water infrastructure needs at our nation's peril," Boxer said. "Some of the communities this bill will protect have waited seven years or more for these projects."

One earmark that came under scrutiny during the debate was one designating $30 million to replenish sand at Imperial Beach in San Diego County.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) sought to hold back funding for the beach project until the levee system in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is shored up. "If you are in a family and you need a new roof, and you want to build a swimming pool, probably most American families are going to put the roof on before they build the swimming pool," he said.

Boxer, defending the beach project, said, "This is not some project that sprung up because some individual looked out and said, 'You know, I want more beach in front of my house.' ... It is a defense against storms and storm surge."

Coburn's amendment was soundly defeated, 77 to 12.

Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that despite the earmark-riddled water bill, he believed the new disclosure rules would lead to fewer earmarks.

"It's going to take a while before the greater transparency has a dampening effect on Congress' appetite for earmarks," he said. "Increased scrutiny is going to force members to be more responsible with taxpayer dollars."

richard.simon@latimes.com

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