An article yesterday on congressional "earmarks" in appropriations bills suggested there was no Air Force research facility in Rome, N.Y. The defense spending bill allotted funds to upgrade the lab there. (Published 10/26/1999)
Even as GOP leaders propose spending cuts that could affect every federal agency, Congress is inserting billions of dollars into the budget for local road and sewer projects, law enforcement initiatives, fisheries studies and dozens of other activities in the home districts of its members.
The practice, known as "earmarking," has long been a way for members of Congress to bring home the bacon. But lawmakers and congressional observers said the practice has reached new heights in the annual spending bills under consideration on Capitol Hill, eroding the traditional authority of the executive branch to manage federal programs.
Various bills direct the Clinton administration to study Hawaiian monk seals, consider the need for more bed space at the Etowah County, Ala., detention center, fund an astronomy exhibit at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, restore the Manchac Swamp in Louisiana, and lay out money for a ferry terminal at Hokes Bluff, Ala.
"Those who have clout and are on the inside want to ensure they get what they need," said former representative Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), referring to the efforts by members of the appropriations committees to put projects into these bills.
In funding the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, lawmakers earmarked a record 314 projects valued at $473 million, or 13 percent of the agency's operating budget. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who chairs the subcommittee that funds the Justice Department, carved $15 million out of the counterterrorism budget for a research project at Dartmouth College in his home state.
Highway bills are famous "pork barrels," but the Transportation Department estimates that in the new bill, 90 percent of the funds appropriated for building highways, bridges, subways and airports is committed to members' projects, up from 78 percent a year ago.
"It's out of control," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a public interest group that supports political reform. "It's an ad hoc effort by members to take over the executive branch function, which serves their purpose and the purpose of their campaign donors, and makes it much harder for citizens to get a fair consideration for competing projects."
On Friday, House Republican leaders proposed a 1.4 percent, across-the-board spending reduction to finance the fiscal 2000 budget without touching Social Security revenue.
Linda Ricci, spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said, "If the congressional majority is looking to cut down on waste through an across-the-board spending cut, these earmarked projects wouldn't be a bad place to start."
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a GOP presidential candidate, said yesterday on ABC's "This Week": "Before we cut Meals on Wheels, why don't we cut our pay raise? It's not appropriate for us to cut programs that are necessary, even if those are small cuts, while . . . pork-barrel spending and wasteful spending is at an all-time high."
But House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) responded on CNN's "Late Edition": "We don't have to lay anybody off. We don't have to cut salaries. We don't even have to cut Meals on Wheels. We're talking about 1 percent. All Americans know that there is more than 10 percent of government spending in waste."
Congressional leaders vehemently denied that the earmarking is wasteful or an attempt to usurp the executive branch. Proof of that, they say, is that President Clinton has signed seven of the 13 annual appropriations bills, and serious negotiations have begun on resolving sticking points on the others.
"There's no question that the executive branch has control," said Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), who chairs the subcommittee that draws up spending allocations for veterans, housing, space and environmental programs. Walsh noted that while earmarking in the EPA budget was heavy this year, the agency will still have flexibility to decide how to spend well over 80 percent of its discretionary money.
He said money directed to district projects by members is "money well spent."
House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) said members routinely slip small provisions into spending bills at the last minute, and he noted that at the start of the year lawmakers requested $80 billion in unauthorized projects, "most of which we had to turn down."
"A lot of members view that as an opportunity to move their projects," Young said. "I don't have a problem with that, because a member of Congress is here to do many things, including to do things for his or her district."
The earmarking trend, experts say, is testimony to a web of factors that are both political and budgetary. With an election year approaching, some Democrats charged that GOP leaders want to deny the Clinton administration flexibility in channeling federal money to key states and districts.
When House-Senate negotiators sat down to iron out differences in next year's transportation spending bill, for instance, about $100 million was available for Clinton's transportation secretary to earmark for building bridges and "national corridor" highways. But by the time negotiations had ended, all of it had been committed to members' projects, including $12 million for the Chippewa Falls to Mount Elk corridor touching on the district of Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
In some cases, the congressional "add-ons" will force the administration to shift spending plans. To offset the cost of 87 congressional projects in EPA's "environmental programs" account, appropriators cut $90 million from the administration's request for global climate change initiatives, and from funds sought for enforcement and compliance monitoring.
The earmarks can also ease passage of controversial spending bills. Most of the 27 House Democrats who voted Thursday for the final version of the bill funding natural resources programs and the arts had parochial reasons for doing so, and they provided the margin of victory on the floor.
Democrats from coal states, including West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia, broke party ranks to vote for the bill because of a provision benefiting retired miners. Several Texas Democrats supported the bill because it postponed a regulation forcing oil companies to pay higher federal royalties.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, gave their blessing to a proposal of Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) to name the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), top Democrat on the subcommittee overseeing the CDC budget. For political balance, Inouye proposed that the National Library of Medicine be named for the subcommittee's Republican chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.).
Such seemingly trivial provisions can pick up needed votes. Proponents of a $268 billion defense spending bill won over Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) this year by amending the law restricting federal assistance to universities that bar military recruiters.
Gay men and women, by and large, lobby to keep recruiters off campus, but poor students argued that this threatened their student aid because of the federal provision. A compromise in the defense bill exempted student aid from the cutoff of assistance to institutions that keep recruiters out.
"The majority gets more, but I don't think the minority gets nothing," said Frank.
The defense measure also picked up supporters with concessions for members suffering the pains of military base closings.
Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) won approval for federal and state funding for changing a former base in Rome, N.Y., into a research facility for the Air Force.
In backing the help for Boehlert, the GOP leadership overruled Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing base-closing policy. Hefley viewed it as "opening the floodgates" and undermining the already difficult job of shutting military bases.
And in the final maneuvering over the defense bill, Hefley found himself overruled by the House leadership in matters involving help for a National Guard base in West Bend, Wis., and Brooks Air Force Base in Texas.
Hefley said the Wisconsin project "came out of thin air" and was not even identified in the National Guard's five-year plan. But it was manna for Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who sponsored it.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) requested the funds a day after the House narrowly approved the foreign aid spending bill, with Sensenbrenner voting with the majority. Sensenbrenner said he would have supported the foreign aid bill anyway, but noted: "I've been a good soldier all year, and good soldiers get rewards."