The Washington Post

After earmark ban, lawmakers try to direct money to hundreds of pet projects

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), along with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), called Tuesday for a permanent end to earmarking. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Members of the House and the Senate attempted to pack hundreds of special spending provisions into at least 10 bills in the summer and fall, less than a year after congressional leaders declared a moratorium on earmarks, congressional records show.

The moratorium, announced last November in the House and in February in the Senate, is a verbal commitment by the Republican leadership to prohibit lawmakers from directing federal funds to handpicked projects and groups in their districts. Lawmakers have tried to get around the moratorium by promising to allow other groups to compete for the funds. But the legislative language is so narrowly tailored that critics consider the practice to be earmarking by another name.

The efforts to resurrect spending on pet projects reveal the tenuous nature of current reform efforts. Two senators have publicly called out their colleagues and will introduce legislation Wednesday that would ban earmarking with the force of law.

“I have heard too many appropriators say informally that they are very hopeful that we can get back to earmarking in the future with few restrictions,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is co-authoring the bill with Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.). “That has come out of the mouths of Democrats and Republicans.”

Most of the spending bills — which will determine the nation’s priorities for defense, transportation, water and other needs — are still being debated, so it is unclear how many special provisions will survive. Some that have been proposed by one committee have already eliminated by another.

Even as some lawmakers attempt to permanently ban earmarks, others are trying to revive them in certain contexts.

This month, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) wrote to House leaders asking that some flood-protection earmarks be restored, saying her project has been publicly vetted and her constituents’ safety is put at risk by flood-prone rivers around Sacramento. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a critic of earmarks, last year began calling for Congress to have a role again in directing money for road and highway projects in the transportation bill, provided that the process is “open and transparent.”

Bachmann said Tuesday that she supports McCaskill and Toomey’s efforts.

“I wholeheartedly support the House moratorium on earmarks,” she said. “Therefore, I commend Senators McCaskill and Toomey for introducing legislation which would ban earmarks in the upper chamber as well.”

Matsui said earmarks should not be banned on principle.

“I think members of Congress know their districts pretty well and know what they need,” she said. “By banning [earmarks] entirely, we are giving all the power to the administration. I don’t care if it’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House, they should not have that power.”

Despite recurrent calls to crack down on earmarks, the practice had reached a peak before the moratorium. The Congressional Research Service found that earmark spending nearly tripled over a 15-year period, to $31.9 billion in 2010, the year before the ban.

One of the first efforts this year to sidestep the ban came in May, when the House Armed Services Committee crafted the National Defense Authorization Act. Lawmakers added 111 amendments totaling more than $650 million in special projects for their districts. Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) set aside $1 billion in a special fund that was used for member-directed projects. Lawmakers said the projects were not earmarks and promised to create a competitive process for the money.

But 59 of the 111 amendments contained language nearly identical to that used to describe previous earmarks, according to an analysis by the earmark watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), who previously secured more than $2 million in earmarks for a “Corrosion Engineering Education Initiative” at the University of Akron, added $33 million to the authorization bill this year for “Corrosion Protection Projects.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) added $5 million for “night vision advanced technology.” He secured a $2.4 million earmark in 2010 for the same technology, to be developed by a company founded by his uncle, who sold the company in the 1990s.

The defense authorization bill was passed by the House, but Sutton’s and Hunter’s efforts were shot down, along with the other amendments, when the issue got to the Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee.

Subcommittee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) honored the moratorium and refused to allow any special provisions. But earmark critics such as McCaskill say the episode highlights how the moratorium rises and falls with the whim of each chairman.

“One way you can look at it is you can say people are trying to make an end run around the rules any way they can,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. “But on the flip side, you can say that they did get slapped down. Maybe it came out of indignation. ‘If I can’t play the earmarks game, you shouldn’t be able to either.’ But the rules held.”

Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said the lawmaker does not consider his amendment to be an earmark because the money would have been awarded based on merit. He said Hunter is hopeful that the funding will come through in the next few weeks when the House and the Senate meet in conference to hammer out a final version of the defense authorization bill. “Mr. Hunter made the request because he feels very strongly about the technology,” Kasper said.

Sutton declined to comment.

At the time, McCaskill was the only lawmaker to publicly challenge the amendments, saying they made a “charade” out of the moratorium. In a May 26 letter to McKeon, she wrote that the “new earmarking procedure you have instituted not only circumvents the current moratorium, but is actually less transparent than the earmarking process that was in place prior to the moratorium.”

McKeon has repeatedly denied that the amendments were earmarks, saying the money would have been granted based on merit.

After 2008, lawmakers had to disclose when they were seeking money for pet projects in their districts, providing a description of the project and the dollar amount. They also had to file paperwork certifying that neither they nor their spouses would benefit financially from the earmark.

McCaskill said the legislation that she and Toomey are proposing would prohibit earmarks and set up a process for challenging such spending.

Under the bill’s provisions, any lawmaker would be allowed to contest something that appears to be an earmark. The member advocating for the spending would have to publicly justify it and receive approval from two-thirds of the full Senate.

Staff writer David S. Fallis contributed to this report.

Kimberly Kindy is a national investigative reporter at The Washington Post.

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