Earmarks Put Candidates On the Spot

By John Solomon and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 12, 2007

Just a few months before he joined the presidential race, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) co-sponsored a little-noticed proposal to require the Pentagon to spend $2 million on brain trauma research for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The beneficiary of the Aug. 2, 2006, earmark from him and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) was undeniably close to home: the University of Chicago, where his wife, Michelle, worked as the university hospital's vice president for community and external affairs.

Earlier this year, Obama made dozens of additional earmark requests, and -- consistent with his position that such requests be transparent -- he publicly disclosed the beneficiaries. More than half a dozen requests were meant for clients of a lobbying and law firm whose partners have donated more than $38,000 to Obama in the past two years.

Obama's work highlights the delicate balancing act faced by several members of Congress running for president, as they try to sound a populist, anti-special-interest message while also fulfilling their traditional role of delivering federal money for their constituents' pet projects.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who has rejected Obama's attacks that she is too close to lobbyists, arranged a $3 million earmark this spring for the development of hydrogen-fuel and hybrid technology by General Motors, whose lobbyists include one of her biggest fundraisers.

And Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), whose presidential campaign frequently attacks excessive spending by Congress, requested more than five dozen earmarks this year worth tens of millions of dollars for causes as diverse as rebuilding a Texas theater, funding a local trolley and helping his state's shrimp industry.

"Yes, Barack Obama is indeed guilty of fighting for important projects in Illinois that help veterans, kids and important infrastructure priorities," said Bill Burton, Obama's campaign spokesman. "He is committed to dramatically reforming the earmark process, and as president he will do so."

Durbin spokesman Joseph Shoemaker said that the senator originally came up with the idea for the University of Chicago earmark and that he invited Obama to join in the request. Shoemaker added that he was unaware of any conversations about Michelle Obama's role at the university.

The earmark faced stiff opposition on the Senate floor last year. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), then the Appropriations Committee chairman, said directing the funds to the University of Chicago would circumvent the normal process by which the National Institutes of Health hands out research funds.

"For this to be earmarked here, now, means they no longer have to compete," Stevens said of the university. "The program [NIH has] for allocating money, I think, should not be obviated by an earmark here on the floor." The spending proposal was eventually set aside.

Bernadette Sargeant, a former counsel for the House ethics committee, questioned whether Obama should have put his name on a request that would have sent funds to his wife's employer. "It is not like her salary is going to change because of this benefit," she said. "But, given her title and the stature of her position, it is a prestige enhancement, or could be perceived as a prestige enhancement."

Sargeant said Obama's decision to co-sponsor the earmark raises concerns under two provisions of the Senate ethics code. The first requires senators to avoid performing official acts that can directly benefit a spouse, and the second more broadly tells senators to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

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