The earmark end-around?: Pork-barrel is out, reviews of military ladder options are in

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Rep. Daniel Maffei defeated a Republican incumbent in 2008. He succeeded an incumbent who did not seek reelection. It also said he was reelected in 2010 after losing his seat after one term. He actually reclaimed the lost seat in 2012. This version of the article has been corrected.


Two paragraphs tucked into a defense spending bill by Rep. Daniel Maffei (D-N.Y.), center, could benefit a business in his district. Since Congress’s earmark ban went into place in 2011, lawmakers have been looking for creative ways to continue to steer money to pet projects back home. (Harry Hamburg/AP)

Budget cuts are forcing him to dramatically shrink the force. Last month, another troubled soldier started shooting at Fort Hood. And then, of course, there’s the war in Afghanistan.

Army Secretary John McHugh has a lot to occupy his time.

But Rep. Daniel Maffei (D-N.Y.) would like to tack another item onto McHugh’s to-do list: briefing Congress on the benefits of ladders. Not just any ladders but “lightweight carbon fiber composite ladders.”

Deep in the phone-book-size budget bill for the Pentagon, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, are two paragraphs, totaling 203 words, that tout the tactical ladders over the more “cumbersome” ones now in use. And it directs the Army secretary to present a review of “commercial ladder options that may reduce weight and provide additional flexibility to soldiers.”

It does not authorize funding for the ladders or mention a specific company that might sell the Pentagon such equipment. Such blatant transactional wording would be a clear violation of Congress’s ban on earmarks, enacted in 2011 after numerous scandals, such as the Alaska “bridge to nowhere,” involving members steering pork back to their districts for political gain.

No lawmaker’s name is attached to the language in the defense spending bill, but Maffei’s office acknowledged that the congressman was behind it. And officials at Allred & Associates, a small company in Maffei’s Upstate New York district, said they were happy that their congressman inserted in the bill a product a division of their company manufactures and sells for $1,900 apiece. They hope it translates into a boost in business.

“I don’t know if it’s going to help us or not,” said J.B. Allred, the president and chief executive of Allred & Associates. “But I’m glad he did that. . . . As a small company it’s hard to get noticed.”

Taxpayer groups and budget experts said the appearance of the ladder language in the bill has the same intent as an earmark, and it illustrates how the ban has forced members of Congress to come up with inventive ways to show their constituents back home they are fighting for their interests in Washington.

“There’s no money attached to this, so by the rules of the House it is not an earmark,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “But it’s certainly a precursor to an earmark, or something designed to achieve the same purpose in the long run.”

Members of Congress have used other tactics to get around the ban, he said, such as “phone-marking” or “letter-marking,” which involves contacting the executive branch directly — and outside the appropriations process — to lobby for funding for certain projects.

Several amendments tacked onto the defense spending bill require briefings on all sorts of issues, including “munitions strategy,” drone testing and the status of a vaccine for equine encephalitis.

But requiring McHugh to come to Capitol Hill to essentially endorse the carbon-fiber ladders is a distraction when the military and Congress have other things to worry about, said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“They’re not just wasting their own time, they’re wasting the Army’s time as well,” said Harrison, who called it a “backdoor” earmark. “The Army is pretty competent at being able to figure out what kind of ladders they want to buy.”

If the bill is voted into law, he said, its language would make it “hard for the Army not to buy them, because it shows that there is going to be strict congressional scrutiny of this issue.”

The Army declined to comment.

Maffei declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, his spokeswoman, Whitney Mitchell, said that he “advocated for this provision to highlight an innovative, cost-effective alternative that is manufactured in Central New York and could be utilized by the United States Army to save taxpayer dollars and help soldiers carry out their missions.”

She noted that the “bipartisan House Armed Services Committee included this report language in the National Defense Authorization Act.”

Given how expensive the ladders are to manufacture, $1,900 is a fair price, said John Yates, the owner of Yates Gear, which sells another type of tactical ladder to the military. (Yates ladders can cost up to $1,000 but are more like portable rope ladders.)

Still, Yates objected to the language in the bill. It does not make sense, he said, because the military does not buy a lot of tactical ladders and the market is not terribly competitive. There are not many companies that make such ladders, he said.

“There shouldn’t be any pork-belly bull---- in a spending bill,” he said. “I don’t think that’s right.”

Others would argue that looking out for hometown interests is part of the job of serving in Congress. Maffei was first elected in 2008, succeeding a 20-year Republican incumbent. But Maffei lost the seat in a tight race to a conservative Republican after one term. He was reelected in 2012 and now faces a challenge from John Katko, a former federal prosecutor. Among his criticisms of Maffei is that he has failed to bring resources home.

While Maffei has a clear fundraising advantage, the district, which includes Syracuse, had slightly more registered Republicans than Democrats in 2012. Maffei could be vulnerable, especially in the midterms without a presidential contender atop the ticket, said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University.

The economy has taken a central role in the campaign, and Maffei has been running on strengthening the middle class and job creation. “He’s repeated the phrases ‘middle class’ and ‘job creation’ about as many times as you can say them,” Reeher said.

Helping a small company win government contracts and produce jobs “would be central to the type of message he wants to convey,” Reeher said.

Allred said that Maffei has “been to our factory several times. He’s been interested in what we’re doing.” He appointed one of the company’s officials to a small-business advisory council.

“When he came to visit us, he had trouble leaving,” Allred said. “He was pretty jazzed.”

The company’s ladders are extremely lightweight and can break up into segments so troops can more easily carry them. It has sold some to the Navy SEALs and to Army Special Forces, which can use them not only to climb onto roofs and upper stories but also as bridges and lookout perches.

Still, it would like to sell more. So company officials looked to Maffei. “We asked him for help,” Allred said.

But there are still several steps to go before the language in the bill becomes law.

“If this company is smart,” said Harrison, the defense analyst, “they are working with their senators to get language inserted in the Senate bill.”

Christian Davenport covers federal contracting for The Post's Financial desk.
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