When the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives passed one of its first spending bills, funding the Energy Department for the rest of 2007, it proudly boasted that the legislation contained no money earmarked for lawmakers' pet projects and stressed that any prior congressional requests for such spending "shall have no legal effect."
Within days, however, lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) began directly contacting the Energy Department. They sought to secure money for their favorite causes outside of the congressional appropriations process -- a practice that lobbyists and appropriations insiders call "phonemarking."
"I understand some of your offices have begun to receive requests from some Congressional offices asking that the department continue to fund programs or activities that received earmarked funds in prior years," department chief of staff Jeffrey Kupfer wrote in a stern Feb. 2 memo, warning agency officials to approve money only for "programs or activities that are meritorious."
The number of earmarks, in which lawmakers target funds to specific spending projects, exploded over the past decade from about 3,000 in 1996 to more than 13,000 in 2006, according to the Congressional Research Service. Most earmarks made it into appropriations bills or their accompanying conference reports without identifying their sponsors. Upon taking control of Congress after November's midterm elections, Democrats vowed to try to halve the number of earmarks, and to require lawmakers to disclose their requests and to certify that the money they are requesting will not benefit them.
But the new majority is already skirting its own reforms.
Perhaps the biggest retreat from that pledge came this week, when House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) told fellow lawmakers that he intends to keep requests for earmarks out of pending spending bills, at least for now. Obey said the committee will deal with them at the end of the appropriations process in the closed-door meetings between House and Senate negotiators known as conference committees.
Democrats had complained bitterly in recent years that Republicans routinely slipped multimillion-dollar pet projects into spending bills at the end of the legislative process, preventing any chance for serious public scrutiny. Now Democrats are poised to do the same.
"I don't give a damn if people criticize me or not," Obey said.
Obey's spokeswoman, Kirstin Brost, said his intention is not to keep the projects secret. Rather, she said, so many requests for spending were made to the appropriations panel -- more than 30,000 this year -- that its staff has been unable to study them and decide their validity.
"I have to sign off on that stuff," Obey said. "And I'm going to make damn sure that we've done everything we can do to make sure that they're legitimate projects, so that you don't get embarrassed by some idiot who is putting in money for a project that happens to benefit himself and his wife."
Anger from GOP
Republicans reacted with outrage. "This is a huge step backwards on earmark reform," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). "As bad as the earmark process is now, this would make it immensely worse."
Phonemarking is another way lawmakers are trying to secure money for projects outside of the new congressional appropriations process by going directly to federal agencies.
After the House finished with the Energy Department spending bill, Reid sent a letter to Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman on Feb. 1, saying that there were no earmarks. Then came a "however."
Reid, as a senator from the electricity-needy West, noted that the legislation set aside $300 million in new money for research in energy efficiency and renewable energy and suggested that some money be used to reverse the administration's original plan to end its geothermal-energy research program.
Reid demanded that the administration fund the geothermal program at 2006 levels or higher. "Geothermal energy has the potential to cleanly and renewably satisfy the new electricity needs of the West," he wrote.
Reid also asked the administration to expand a federal loan program to include geothermal research projects. Other lawmakers, from both parties, inundated the Energy Department with similar requests.
Democrats slammed such practices when Republicans ruled the House, but such calls and letters have not let up in the Democratic Congress, executive branch officials said.
"Certainly, we have heard from various members of Congress this year to express their support for various projects and groups seeking funding from the department," said Energy Department spokeswoman Anne Womack Kolton. "There's no difference from previous years."
Clearning any family connection
Another key Democratic reform requires House members seeking earmarks to certify that neither they nor their spouses have any financial interest in the project.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did just that when she requested $25 million for a project to improve the waterfront in her home district of San Francisco. Her request did not note that her family owns interests in four buildings near the proposed Pier 35 project.
Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Pelosi, said that any suggestion of a conflict of interest is "ridiculous." He said that Pelosi was passing along a spending request from the Port of San Francisco and that she would not benefit from it.
One of the bonanza areas for earmarks traditionally involves Pentagon spending and authorization bills. To help lawmakers make their requests efficiently, House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) sent out a two-page tip sheet, along with several sample letters and forms. "Provide all necessary information on the attached form to ensure full consideration of the request," the guidelines urged. Skelton set a deadline of noon on March 15 for requests.
Democrats are not alone in seeking new money for pet projects. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) has made one of the biggest earmark requests in the new Congress, seeking $2.4 billion to build 10 more C-17 planes -- which the Pentagon has said it does not need. Such planes would create work at Boeing and other military contractors, benefiting lawmakers' constituents in several states, including a C-17 assembly line near Rohrabacher's district.
"The only ones playing politics in this decision are those unelected officials of the Department of Defense who are trying to keep everyone happy by spending billions of dollars on ancient aircraft when more modern aircraft is available," Rohrabacher said.
Veteran appropriations watchers say the new Congress has also been playing with wording to disguise some earmarks or to create the appearance that less special-interest spending is occurring.
For instance, a new emergency spending bill for the Iraq war passed by the House this month had no specific earmarks, but it included a clause declaring that all the projects lawmakers had included in a previously vetoed bill were, in effect, included.
Likewise, the House Appropriations Committee report accompanying the Iraq supplemental spending bill vetoed by President Bush boldly declared: "This bill, as reported, contains no congressional earmarks, limited tax benefits, or limited tariff benefits." But it set aside money for pet projects including $25 million for spinach, $60 million for salmon fisheries and $5 million for aquaculture.
"Absolutely nothing has changed," said the Center for Defense Information's Winslow T. Wheeler, a Senate appropriations and national security aide who worked for both Democrats and Republicans over three decades before stepping down in 2002. "The rhetoric has changed but not the behavior, and the behavior has gotten worse in the sense that while they are pretending to reform things, they are still groveling in the trough."