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Pet projects can come back to bite lawmakers

Given the recent headlines, lawmakers might seem eager to do away with earmarks, the narrowly drawn legislative provisions that pay for pet projects. Several officials, however, are in prison or facing investigation for earmark abuses.
Ted Stevens
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the former longtime Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, has unapologetically defend pork-barrel spending, including the widely ridiculed $200 million “bridge to nowhere” in a remote section of Alaska.Lauren Victoria Burke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Given the recent headlines, lawmakers might seem eager to do away with earmarks, the narrowly drawn legislative provisions that pay for pet projects.

A former congressman and lobbyist are in prison because of earmark abuses, the Senate’s senior Republican is under federal investigation regarding earmarks, and President Bush has called for their end.

Yet they are more popular than ever. Their resilience and controversy are central to this week’s Senate debate over an ethics bill, which some call groundbreaking and others call weak.

Hammered by scandals and heavy criticism from editorial pages, Senate leaders are urging colleagues to follow the House’s lead in voting to require greater disclosure of earmarks.

But only a few lawmakers talk of eliminating them altogether, and the reason is simple: While many Americans criticize earmarks in general, they seem to love them when they result in a new bridge, senior center or employer in their home town.

Hundreds of House and Senate members routinely boast of targeting federal money to their constituents, especially when seeking re-election. The few who eschew earmarks and try to remove them from bills are routinely voted down by big margins.

Stevens faces probe
The continued embrace of earmarks comes amid the latest evidence that they can be politically treacherous: Ted Stevens of Alaska, the Senate’s longest-serving Republican, is facing two federal probes involving earmarks.

Agents are looking into whether he steered federal money to an Alaska wildlife research center that then bought land from a former Stevens aide. And they searched Stevens’ house in Alaska this week as part of a probe into his ties to an Alaska energy company that received tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts.

Stevens, the former longtime Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, has unapologetically become the face of targeted pork-barrel spending, ardently defending the widely ridiculed “bridge to nowhere” in a remote section of Alaska.

The bridge received more than $200 million in federal money. But Stevens has dealt with much smaller earmarks that may prompt colleagues to rethink the practice’s political cost-benefit ratio.

About $700,000 of nearly $4 million directed to the National Park Service was paid to companies associated with Trevor McCabe, a former legislative director for Stevens, according to officials familiar with the deals. That’s a pittance in federal spending terms, but illustrative of the often questionable relationships between earmarks and the general public’s best interests, say some lawmakers and outside groups.

'The currency of corruption'
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., perhaps Congress’ most outspoken critic of earmarks, with no mention of the Stevens situation, said of earmarking in general: “Earmarks have been the currency of corruption.”

“Our own practices contributed to recent scandals as much as the actions of corrupt lobbyists,” Flake said.

He was one of eight House members who voted Tuesday against the ethics-lobbying bill that easily passed the House and now awaits Senate action. The bill’s backers say it would discourage earmark abuse by requiring lawmakers to identify their proposed spending projects and certify that they have no direct financial interest in them.

Critics say the disclosure requirements could be dodged. They note, for example, that the Senate majority leader could declare that a large spending bill has met all disclosure requirements, and senators would have no means to challenge the conclusion directly from the floor.

Moreover, critics say, recent promises by House leaders to disclose earmarks have proven leaky.

In May, Flake noted that House leaders declared that an emergency supplemental spending bill “does not contain any congressional earmarks.” In a House floor speech, he pointed out that Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., had issued a press release the day before headlined: “Lowey inserts funds in emergency supplemental appropriations bill for critical flood mitigation projects” in New York, to the tune of $8.6 million.

“I claim no responsibility for any statement made by any member,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.

High profile cases ignored
Even the imprisonment of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., on corruption charges that included earmark abuses has not dulled lawmakers’ appetite for pet projects. One recent study found that earmarks in House legislation went from 3,000 in 1996 to 15,000 in 2005.

** FILE ** Jack Abramoff leaves Federal Court in Washington in this Jan. 3, 2006 file photo. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)Gerald Herbert / AP

And Obey said earlier this year that House members had requested 32,000 earmarks in spending bills for fiscal 2007.

Even those who say the House-passed ethics bill should do more to disclose earmarks stop short of calling for their elimination.

“This is a pivotal moment for Congress, particularly in light of the concerns about mishandling earmarks,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. He will push for greater disclosure requirements, he said, “but I don’t think there’s any sense that we ought to do away with earmarks, because then you just relinquish all the power to the bureaucrats.”

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., acknowledged in an interview Wednesday that he may not find enough support to back his demand for greater disclosure of earmarks in the lobbying bill.

That’s too bad, DeMint said, because “earmarks are really where most of the corruption has come from. It is us directing money in return for some favor.”