In the Democratic Congress, Pork Still Gets Served

By John Solomon and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 24, 2007

When the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives passed one of its first spending bills, funding the Energy Department for the rest of 2007, it proudly boasted that the legislation contained no money earmarked for lawmakers' pet projects and stressed that any prior congressional requests for such spending "shall have no legal effect."

Within days, however, lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) began directly contacting the Energy Department. They sought to secure money for their favorite causes outside of the congressional appropriations process -- a practice that lobbyists and appropriations insiders call "phonemarking."

"I understand some of your offices have begun to receive requests from some Congressional offices asking that the department continue to fund programs or activities that received earmarked funds in prior years," department chief of staff Jeffrey Kupfer wrote in a stern Feb. 2 memo, warning agency officials to approve money only for "programs or activities that are meritorious."

The number of earmarks, in which lawmakers target funds to specific spending projects, exploded over the past decade from about 3,000 in 1996 to more than 13,000 in 2006, according to the Congressional Research Service. Most earmarks made it into appropriations bills or their accompanying conference reports without identifying their sponsors. Upon taking control of Congress after November's midterm elections, Democrats vowed to try to halve the number of earmarks, and to require lawmakers to disclose their requests and to certify that the money they are requesting will not benefit them.

But the new majority is already skirting its own reforms.

Perhaps the biggest retreat from that pledge came this week, when House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) told fellow lawmakers that he intends to keep requests for earmarks out of pending spending bills, at least for now. Obey said the committee will deal with them at the end of the appropriations process in the closed-door meetings between House and Senate negotiators known as conference committees.

Democrats had complained bitterly in recent years that Republicans routinely slipped multimillion-dollar pet projects into spending bills at the end of the legislative process, preventing any chance for serious public scrutiny. Now Democrats are poised to do the same.

"I don't give a damn if people criticize me or not," Obey said.

Obey's spokeswoman, Kirstin Brost, said his intention is not to keep the projects secret. Rather, she said, so many requests for spending were made to the appropriations panel -- more than 30,000 this year -- that its staff has been unable to study them and decide their validity.

"I have to sign off on that stuff," Obey said. "And I'm going to make damn sure that we've done everything we can do to make sure that they're legitimate projects, so that you don't get embarrassed by some idiot who is putting in money for a project that happens to benefit himself and his wife."

Republicans reacted with outrage. "This is a huge step backwards on earmark reform," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). "As bad as the earmark process is now, this would make it immensely worse."

Phonemarking is another way lawmakers are trying to secure money for projects outside of the new congressional appropriations process by going directly to federal agencies.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company