Lawmakers post earmarks online; good luck finding them

McClatchy NewspapersApril 14, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Want to learn about the earmarks, the federally funded local projects that your member of Congress wants to stick in the federal budget?

It may not be easy. In fact, it could be like looking "under an electronic rock," as one budget watchdog group put it.

The earmark process, lambasted by both major presidential contenders during the 2008 campaign as a secretive and unseemly way of doing government business, is supposed to be more open this year.

Analysts see progress, but they also see trouble.

"How many times does government do something the first time and get it perfect? They are making an effort," said William Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks earmarks. But, Allison said, "It seems like some people are going out of their way to hide things."

Members of the House of Representatives were told to post their earmark requests on their Web sites earlier this month. The Senate's deadline is mid-May. A proposal must give the spending amount, the proposed recipient, the addresses and an explanation of the project. Members also must declare in writing that neither they nor their spouses would benefit financially.

To find the 22 pages of earmark requests from Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., one must find his Web site, click on "On the Issues," then "Economic Development and Job Creation." Next, the reader sees a long statement from Rogers that starts with his high school graduation in 1955 and, after eight paragraphs, ends with a link to his earmark requests.

"The congressman is in compliance with both the spirit and letter of the policy," said spokeswoman Stefani Zimmerman. "Anybody who knows Congressman Rogers, knows that his mission for the district has always been the same — to promote job creation and economic development. Our funding requests for 2010, as every year prior, revolve around those themes, so the placement of our requests within that section is both perfectly logical and simple to understand."

On the Web site of Rep. Harry Teague, D-N.M., a viewer must click on "Open and Transparent Government," a homepage link that says nothing about earmarks, only that one can "Read about Harry's dedication to honesty and integrity." Inside that category, though, you'll find Teague's earmark requests.

Learning about requests from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a House Appropriations subcommittee chairwoman, required clicking first on the "News and Media" section, then clicking on "press releases" and scrolling down. Her spokesman, Jonathan Beeton, said the request list had been prominent on the homepage until recently.

After McClatchy asked why the page was so difficult to find, Wasserman Schultz put the press release back in a prominent place on her Web site. She plans to post a permanent link to her earmarks on the main page of the site within the next week.

Still, this is hardly the kind of transparency that House Democratic leaders or the Obama administration promised.

"A lot of people are hiding their disclosure statements under electronic rocks," said Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington watchdog group.

"We are working with members to bring them into compliance," said House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Kirstin Brost.

Controversy about the process has simmered in recent years because of news about projects such as Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere," a $233 million earmark to help fund a bridge to an island with 50 residents.

Most lawmakers, though, still defend the practice of local earmarks, saying they understand local needs best and that earmarking local projects in federal spending bills is often their best tool for making sure the projects get money. Earmarks are also an easy way for members of Congress to show what they've done for their constituents.

Executive branch agencies will review the proposals and can recommend that Congress reject earmarks they consider wasteful. Any earmarks directed at for-profit entities will be subject to competitive bidding.

To be sure, some congressional home pages, such as that of Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., announce a link to his earmark requests in big letters, and Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., has a big link to "Wisconsin projects submitted for consideration in FY 2010 appropriations." Others, however, are harder to find.

The congressional instructions don't spell out how the earmarks are to be presented on lawmakers' Web sites, and two kinds of problems have resulted.

First is what Allison calls the "spirit of euphemisms."

The earmarks of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are found by clicking on "Community Funding Requests."

Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., calls earmarks "Investing in Oregon," while Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., lists them on her "legislative issues" page under "economic recovery and reinvestment."

Pelosi aide Brendan Daly said his boss uses "community funding requests" because "that's what they are." Lowey spokesman Matthew Dennis explained that the New York congresswoman, who chairs the State Department and foreign operations subcommittee, said she wanted to "put the requests for federal funding in a broader context of all the work she's doing."

A second problem is figuring out which projects some legislators actually want. At least three members of Congress list all requests from constituents.

Chris Crawford, spokesman for Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., calls this approach "maximum transparency," and notes that Kingston has a link on his homepage that directs readers to his efforts to overhaul the earmark process. Jed Link, a spokesman for Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., found that listing everything helps encourage constituent feedback.

Allison found such arguments ridiculous.

"What they're doing is getting around disclosure," he said. "These are supposed to be requests forwarded to the committee by members."

Appropriations subcommittees will rule on the requests. There are 12 such panels in the House, each covering a different subject area. Lawmakers aren't assigned a fixed amount of earmark money to divvy up, but the more powerful members tend to wind up winning more projects.

No dollar figures are available yet on how much is being sought this year. Final totals will be limited to half of 2006 levels, and not more than 1 percent of the total federal discretionary budget — spending programs that don't include mandatory "entitlement" spending programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

ON THE WEB

Rep. Hal Rogers' homepage

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz' homepage

Rep. Harry Teague's homepage

Rep. Nancy Pelosi's homepage

Rep. David Obey's homepage

Rep. Kurt Schrader's homepage

Rep. Dennis Rehberg's homepage

Rep. Nita Lowey's homepage

Rep. Jack Kingston's homepage

Taxpayers for Common Sense FY 2010 earmark database

Sunlight Foundation earmark report

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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