Earmarks remain force in Congress

Transparency has grown with reform, but so, too, has the volume of projects

August 05, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

WASHINGTON -- If the idea was to shame lawmakers into restraint, it did not work.

Eight months after Democrats vowed to shine light on the dark art of "earmarking" money for pet projects, many lawmakers say the new visibility has only intensified the competition for projects by letting each member see exactly how many everyone else is receiving.

So far this year, House lawmakers have put together spending bills that include almost 6,500 earmarks for almost $11 billion in local projects, half of which the Bush administration opposed.

The earmark frenzy hit fever pitch in recent days, even as the Senate passed new rules that allow more public scrutiny of them.

Far from causing embarrassment, the new transparency has raised the value of earmarks as a measure of members' clout. Indeed, lawmakers have often competed to have their names attached to individual earmarks and rushed to put out news releases claiming credit for the money they bring home.

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, has obtained about $63 million worth of projects, most of them in or near her district in San Francisco. But Pelosi was overshadowed by Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, who obtained $163 million in pet projects: more than anyone else in Congress and more than his own previous record of about $100 million.

To be sure, the Democratic totals are less than half the record set by Republicans when they controlled Congress in 2005, but they are far higher than the levels just 10 years ago. Among the thousands of earmarks tucked into House or Senate spending bills: $2.6 million for a new grape genetics research center at Cornell University and $3.6 million to design a Coast Guard Operations Systems Center in Kearneysville, W.Va.

Aside from the risk of spending money on projects only because they make political sense, critics warn that earmarks fritter away significant parts of congressional time and make it harder for government agencies to focus on long-term goals. They have also become a tool for bargaining in Congress.

By any measure, the volume of earmarks in spending bills has exploded in the past decade, from about 3,000 in 1996 to almost 16,000 in 2005.

"Earmarks aren't inherently evil," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit research group. "But they have grown to such an extent that there hasn't really been any oversight."

But even critics acknowledge that the Democrats have made the system less secretive and slightly less of a free-for-all.

Under rules the House adopted this year, all earmarks in a bill are supposed to be collected onto a single list in the report that accompanies the bill. Lawmakers must also file a "certification" that attaches their names to proposed projects, discloses the organizations that will receive the money and declares that neither the lawmakers nor their spouses have a financial stake in it.

In practice, the disclosures can be difficult to read and incomplete. In addition, the certifications only declare that lawmakers and their spouses have no financial conflict; they are silent about financial ties that other relatives may have.

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