By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 10, 2007
Even as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer has joined in steps to clean up pork-barrel spending, the Maryland congressman has tucked $96 million worth of pet projects into next year's federal budget, including $450,000 for a campaign donor's foundation.
Hoyer (D) is one of the top 10 earmarkers in the House for 2008, based on budget requests in bills so far, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent watchdog group.
Earmarks are spending items inserted into bills to benefit designated companies or projects, often in the sponsoring lawmaker's district. They make up a small percentage of the federal budget. But because the grants often aren't subject to competitive bidding or much scrutiny, they can go to projects that are wasteful or reward campaign contributors, watchdog groups say.
Congressional leaders obtain a disproportionate share of approved earmarks, showing "these decisions are based on political muscle rather than project merit," said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Hoyer defends his earmarks, saying they fund such worthy causes as cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and supporting local military bases. For 2008, he has requested millions of dollars to equip police in his district, help schools and improve roads and the Southern Maryland bus network. His $96 million in earmarks includes projects he sponsored alone and with other legislators, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Republicans had come under fire as earmarks tripled during their 12 years of congressional control, to nearly 13,000 in 2006. Some projects, such as a $223 million bridge to a sparsely populated Alaskan island -- dubbed a "bridge to nowhere" -- stirred public ridicule.
Since assuming control of Congress, Democrats have taken some important steps to clean up the practice, watchdog groups say. Lawmakers are now required to disclose their earmarks. And House and Senate leaders have agreed to cut earmark spending by 40 percent in the 2008 budget bills, most of which are being wrapped into a giant package to be presented this week.
"We made very substantial progress in making sure that earmarks, which I support, are transparent," Hoyer said in an interview.
And yet, pet projects can still be slipped into bills with little scrutiny.
Consider the $450,000 that Hoyer inserted into a 2008 education spending bill for the California-based InTune Foundation Group, whose Web site describes it as a music-education nonprofit group.
In 2005, InTune got a previous earmark for nearly $500,000 to develop lesson plans on funk music and Nobel Peace laureates. Asked recently how effective that program had been, Education Department officials said they didn't know. InTune hadn't turned in a report on what it did, officials said.
"It is significantly past due," department spokeswoman Rebecca Neale said, noting that the deadline was September 2006. She said that the department had tried to reach InTune but that its old telephone and e-mail were out of service and there was no contact information on its Web site.
After The Washington Post asked InTune about the delay, the foundation got in touch with the department, Neale said last week. She said the group had not yet submitted its report.
That wasn't the only issue involving the foundation's performance. In its paperwork for the earmark, InTune said it would use some of the money to hire an educator, Joan Kozlovsky, to evaluate its program in 2005 and 2006. But Kozlovsky, a former school superintendent in St. Mary's County, said in an interview that she did no such work and hadn't heard from InTune in years.
The Post reached Eugene C. Maillard, director of InTune, on his cellphone. He said that the project was carried out, although it suffered delays because its senior consultant became ill. He said Kozlovsky is "part of the team that we want to use" to do the final report.
Told about InTune's last grant, Hoyer replied: "If in fact they are not compliant with the requirements that the Department of Education has, they shouldn't get the money" for the 2008 earmark. That money was in a bill vetoed by President Bush that probably will be part of the jumbo budget package this week.
Hoyer said he supported the foundation's new request because "I thought it was a program that would be a positive program." He said that he understood it would involve music education nationally and at the National Music Center in downtown Washington -- "that's how it was described to us."
Maillard told The Post that InTune hadn't decided exactly how to spend the 2008 earmark, although most of it would go to create youth programs at the National Music Center.
"It might be music camps. It might be lessons. It might be how to be a DJ. It might be how to create a television show," he said.
Leslie K. Paige of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste said the grant illustrated the problem with earmarks.
"Don't we deserve to know where this money is going and who these people are?" she asked.
Maillard, his current and past In Tune associates and their families contributed at least $31,000 to Hoyer's political action committee from 2004 to 2006, Federal Election Commission records show.
Hoyer said the earmark wasn't a quid pro quo, noting that he is a longtime supporter of the music industry. But he acknowledged a link between his contributors and some projects he champions.
"If you support something . . . either through legislative language or verbal support or appropriated dollars, what happens is the proponents of those objectives wind up saying they want to support you," he said.
"Sometimes it's a question of which is the chicken and which is the egg," Hoyer added.
Maillard isn't the only Hoyer contributor who stands to benefit from 2008 earmarks.
In the defense spending bill recently signed into law, the congressman won $2 million for a project begun in 2002 at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. "The entity to receive funding for this project is ManTech Systems Engineering Corp.," Hoyer wrote to the House Appropriations Committee.
That company is a subsidiary of ManTech International, whose executives and employees gave $12,100 to Hoyer's 2005-06 congressional campaign, making them one of his top contributors that cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan Web site for campaign finance information.
A Patuxent spokesman said the project was valuable. The system uses sensors to evaluate helicopters' performance, helping the Navy "improve flight safety, reduce maintenance costs and increase the helicopters' availability," said spokesman Rob Koon.
Not all earmarks are wasteful, but the problem, critics say, is that they allow individual legislators to direct money to projects that might not be national priorities and that benefit specific companies.
Hoyer denied any favoritism toward ManTech, saying many defense contractors donate to his coffers because he champions military bases in his district. He added that the base chose the contractors.
"To the extent Pax River is successful and Pax River is growing and Pax River has programs that I think are important to the national defense, ManTech is advantaged," Hoyer said. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) signed on as a co-sponsor for the earmark during negotiations on the bill.
Hoyer has won enormous goodwill in his district for bringing home hundreds of millions of dollars in federal projects. His office said that he might have gotten even more earmarks in some past years but that it's impossible to tell because there was no accurate accounting before this year's reform.
If approved, his 2008 earmarks will benefit local hospitals, universities, environmental projects and nonprofit groups. They also would help preserve jobs at such federal facilities as the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. It would get earmarks for studies on turf grass, coffee and cocoa, and potato diseases, among other subjects.
A longtime proponent of what he calls "good pork," Hoyer said he supports spending that helps create jobs and improve education, health care, public safety and national security.
"All of that is good investment," he said.
Legislators often know the needs of their districts better than the executive branch, he said. And he defended the party's commitment to fiscal responsibility, pointing out that Democrats had instituted a system to offset new spending with budget cuts or increased taxes.
"The problem with the Republicans is they spent vast sums of money without paying" for the expenditures, he said.
Watchdog groups say they don't necessarily want to eliminate all earmarks but improve accountability. Ronald D. Utt, a budget specialist with the Heritage Foundation, said the transportation spending bill offers an indication of how unwieldy the practice has become. Until the mid-1980s, the bill had an average of three earmarks a year, he said. The 2008 bill has more than 2,000.
"The system has so grown in the last decade . . . that it's impossible to believe the Appropriations Committee is really looking at each project with a careful eye," said Alexander of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.