Pet Projects' Veil Is Only Partly Lifted

Rahm Emanuel, who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has been a major proponent of making earmarks in spending bills more transparent.
Rahm Emanuel, who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has been a major proponent of making earmarks in spending bills more transparent. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)

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By John Solomon and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 9, 2007

Rep. Rahm Emanuel was extremely proud when the House passed a major spending bill early this year that contained not a single special-interest project. "This is an earmark-free bill," the Illinois Democrat jubilantly declared on Feb. 1.

A week later, however, he and 18 other Illinois lawmakers signed a letter to the Energy Department to "express our strong support" for a bio-energy project at the University of Illinois. Emanuel also sent his own letter to the department seeking "support and assistance in securing" $500,000 for Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago and $750,000 for the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Such requests for specific institutions are commonly known as earmarks. But Emanuel, a member of the Democratic House leadership, declines to call them that. "Letter-writing is not an earmark," he said in an interview.

In the wake of last year's controversy over the Alaskan "bridge to nowhere" and other notorious legislated programs, Democrats in Congress have made "earmark" into an epithet -- the E-word that they are reluctant to say aloud. But the taboo has not stopped either Democrats or Republicans from continuing to seek these expenditures while calling them something else.

Members of Congress are now resorting to less obvious tactics that allow them to get money to favored beneficiaries without acknowledging support for what others consider to be earmarks:

? Lawmakers are holding hearings meant to cajole or pressure executive branch officials into providing money for their pet projects -- even when those agencies already have rejected the requests.

? Congressional chairmen are writing favored projects into their committees' spending bills, exploiting a loophole in the rules that enables those expenditures to avoid being counted, and therefore disclosed overtly, as earmarks.

? Like Emanuel, a growing number of lawmakers are asking executive branch officials to use their authority to send tax dollars into congressional districts or states, effectively financing projects they desire but do not wish to accomplish with specific, and highly public, legislation.

Government watchdog groups and a few dissident lawmakers have noticed these sleights of hand and have begun to complain. They say the approach deceives the public about how many special spending projects are being handed out, noting that lawmakers' contacts with agencies usually are conducted out of public view. The Washington Post learned of Emanuel's requests by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.

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