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.
"Going to agencies outside the congressional process avoids any measure of transparency or accountability," said Ellen Miller of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation. "Earmarks remain and are just called by a different name."
So tainted is the word that lawmakers now tend to eschew it, using a more antiseptic phrase instead: "congressionally directed spending."
"They are trying to change the whole vernacular so that earmarks aren't earmarks anymore," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
To be sure, Ellis and Miller have lauded recent changes in the rules that govern special-interest spending. Congress has agreed to prohibit the once-common practice of dropping unaired, anonymously backed projects into House and Senate spending bills. In addition, expenditures identified as earmarks must be both clearly explained and publicly linked to their authors.
Congress appears to have reduced its hunger for earmarks this year. Member-disclosed earmarks passed by the House have fallen to about 6,000, with a cost of $8.5 billion -- less than half the number and total amount of two years ago, Taxpayers for Common Sense estimated.
But more legislating lies ahead, especially in the Senate, and "things don't tend to get smaller," Ellis said.
What's more, plenty of projects slip through the new disclosure requirements and cannot be easily accounted for. Programs inserted into spending bills at the request of executive branch officials, for example, are generally not considered earmarks, so lawmakers often try to persuade agency officials to request the pet projects they want -- thus avoiding that pejorative label.
In addition, if projects are included in legislation by the primary author of a spending bill -- usually the chairman of a committee -- those projects do not have to be as clearly marked as other earmarks. This is because formal earmarks are requested by members; if they appear in the starting-point bill, they are not considered earmarks.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) confronted David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, on the House floor in March over this practice, noting that a spending bill then under debate contained $35 million for a risk-mitigation program at a federal space-exploration facility, even though the measure had been certified to contain no earmarks.
"We have passed some good rules with regard to earmark reform and transparency," Flake said. "But we have found a way around them already." Obey said that the provision was not an earmark under the rules. "An earmark is something that is requested by an individual member," Obey said. "This item was not requested by any individual member; it was put in the bill by me."
Two months later, Obey again rebuffed Flake when Flake pointed out that a supposedly earmark-free bill on the House floor contained an allocation of $8.7 million to ward off floods in New York. The provision was not called an earmark, Flake noted, but Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) put out a news release applauding the provision and its potential benefit to her district.
Other lawmakers have ginned up support for narrow spending proposals through hearings. Two subcommittees of the House Science and Technology Committee pressed Energy Department officials in hearings this year, for example, about the department's decision to end its funding for the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, near Aiken, S.C.
Energy officials offered the committee written proof that there was agreement between the administration, Congress and the lab to end its funding after 2007, but lawmakers still demanded more money.
"The Savannah River Ecology Lab served the Department of Energy, the communities affected by the site and the nation for more than 50 years," Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) said at a hearing last month. "It was, by any financial measure, a very inexpensive lab to operate. It would be hard to find a better return on investment anywhere in the federal science complex."
Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Tex.) added: "There is simply no reason for DOE to discontinue funding. There are funds available. There is work to be done."
The tongue-lashing did not persuade the department to cough up the money, however, so Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the full committee, added a new threat. Gordon told the department's chief financial officer in a letter that he would not approve funding that the department requested for a bio-energy lab unless it allocated $2 million to help keep the ecology lab afloat.
"We have received no follow-up from DOE to the letter as yet," said Alisha Prather, the committee's spokeswoman.
Other lawmakers do not play as roughly to get the money they want. Sometimes they just write a letter and then make a phone call.
Emanuel, who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and was a major proponent of making earmarks in spending bills more transparent, said he followed up his letters with a call to Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman.
"I'm on bended knee," he said of the call. "I have to go to an executive in another party and ask for resources, but the people in my district elected me to fight for these things."
Energy Department spokeswoman Megan Barnett said Emanuel's requests have not been funded. "We regularly hear from members of Congress for support on various projects, and this year was no different. We look at each of these projects on the merits," she said.
Emanuel defended his requests as "a good public investment" and added: "If I think it is good, I'm going to use all the tools to fight for it, whether it is an earmark, letter-writing or lighting myself on fire. I may even go on a hunger strike."
But he declined to say whether he and other lawmakers ought to disclose their private contacts with federal agencies when they seek money for projects. "Let me just say that I'm a big believer in transparency," Emanuel said.