Earmark Spending Makes a Comeback

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

More than a year after Congress pledged to curb pork barrel funding known as earmarks, lawmakers are gearing up for another spending binge, directing billions toward organizations and companies in their home districts.

Earmark spending in the House's defense authorization bill alone soared 29 percent last month, from $7.7 billion last year to $9.9 billion now, according to data compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group in the District. The Senate bill has not been approved, but the proposal includes an increased number of earmarks, although for a slightly lesser total cost.

Lawmakers had promised to cut back on earmarks and mandated better disclosure of them after steady criticism that they were funding programs with little debate or oversight. The promises led to an initial decline in earmarks last year that was trumpeted on Capitol Hill. But the new data show that they are surging again, at least in the proposed Pentagon authorization budget, which sets out priorities to be funded in a later appropriations bill.

"Both parties talk a good game on cutting earmarks, but at first opportunity, the House larded up," said Stephen Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group. "This is just another broken promise."

Think of a way to spend money on defense, and it could easily be among the hundreds of projects added quietly to the House and Senate spending plans this spring. Many of the earmarks serve as no-bid contracts for the recipients.

Requests include $204,000 for an infantry platoon battle course from Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both Arkansas Democrats; $2.2 million for nanofluids for advanced military mobility from Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky); $98 million for a Northrop Grumman project to develop an aircraft sensor suite, from Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.).

Chambliss was a part of another bipartisan group of lawmakers who also requested allocating $497 million to United Technologies, Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney for "advanced procurement or line close down costs," the watchdog group's data show.

Funding for an indoor small-arms range in Connecticut? It's in there too, at $11 million, care of Sens. Lieberman and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) So is $10 million for school-age services on a military base in Kentucky.

Tens of millions of dollars more are directed at lawmakers' state universities, sometimes for research of metals, composites and other technology. That includes $2.5 million for development of three-dimensional integrated circuit research at Boise State University and $3 million for "superstructural particle evaluation" at East Carolina University.

The latest surge has occurred under Democratic leadership of Congress, but it is difficult to compare earmark spending with that of Republican-controlled Congresses because there was no disclosure requirement until last year. This year, all sides have racked up some big requests in the defense authorization bills.

In the Senate, Lieberman led the way with his participation in 14 requests worth more than $292 million, some of them involving more than one lawmaker, the watchdog group data show. Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) made 48 requests, many with colleagues, worth more than $198 million. Sens. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) led Republicans by participating in requests totaling $188 million and $182 million, respectively.

Leading earmarkers in the House include Democrats Solomon P. Ortiz (Tex.) and Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii) and Republicans Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and Robin Hayes (N.C.).

Earmark spending has a long history, and some lawmakers said it is a constitutional right for Congress to control the government's purse. Proponents note that earmarks often provide funding to organizations doing good work that otherwise would not get a dime from Congress.

Other lawmakers contend that the standard practice on Capitol Hill of slipping in earmarked extras -- often at the behest of lobbyists working for corporations, universities and other beneficiaries -- is fostering an atmosphere of dirty politics. Critics said the process of sorting through earmarks also distracts lawmakers from providing oversight of other budget matters.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said the budget system almost demands that lawmakers use earmarks to win support from voters. He said his colleagues also award earmarks with the expectation that they will generate campaign contributions from happy recipients and their lobbyists, a dynamic that Taxpayers for Common Sense describes as the "pay-to-play system." Lawmakers often boast of the earmarks they have obtained.

The data compiled by the watchdog group show that 60 percent of the members of the House Armed Services Committee who arranged earmarks also received campaign contributions from the companies that received the funding. Almost all the members of the committee received campaign contributions from companies that got earmarks this year.

"It's corrupting. It's a much bigger problem than the sum of its parts. It's much more than just waste," said Flake, who has criticized both Republican and Democratic colleagues for questionable earmarked projects. "One good defense earmark can yield tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions."

Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), for instance, requested a $4 million earmark for Digital Fusion, a company whose executives have recently donated $18,000 to the lawmaker. Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) also inserted a $5.4 million earmark for Clean Earth Technologies, whose executives have donated $14,000 to him.

Vincent Perez, a spokesman for Reyes, said, "The congressman's appropriations projects are carefully vetted to ensure they are consistent with the needs and interests of his constituency, and there is no connection between his fundraising efforts and his work in Congress." Akin's office said his earmark was for developing imaging technology that "would be a huge step forward in force protection."

The Senate also relies on earmarks, though not quite so heavily. The number of earmarks in the Senate defense authorization bill rose sharply from 309 to 435, although the overall spending declined slightly this year, to $5.4 billion.

The requests by Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, included earmarks to General Motors, whose executives have recently donated $29,000 to the senator, according to the watchdog group. Levin's office did not respond to a request for comment.

The issue of earmarks is not going to go away anytime soon. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill), the presumptive Democratic nominee for the White House, disclosed in March that he had sought $740 million in earmarks over the past three years, about a third of which received funding. He has also proposed legislation requiring better disclosure of earmarks before they are approved. GOP rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the sharpest earmark critics in Congress, has made it a point to buck the trend and avoid asking for earmarks.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company