WASHINGTON — As the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, Rep. Norm Dicks will write a $700 billion Pentagon funding bill that has traditionally been crammed with more earmarks than any of the other dozen annual spending measures.
That could be changing.
Just days after the House ethics committee found Dicks and six other members of the subcommittee hadn't traded earmarks for campaign contributions, Democrats last week announced a new ban on corporate earmarks.
Dicks was one of the architects of the policy, along with the chairman of the full House Appropriations Committee, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.
"We had to make a move," Dicks said in an interview. "We have to represent our districts, but this was becoming a political football and it was time to clear the air."
The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct released a 300-page report on the earmarks that Dicks and others had secured for the PMA Group, a now-closed lobbying firm reportedly under investigation by the Justice Department. The report, which contains more than 40 pages specifically devoted to Dicks, including transcripts of interviews with the congressman and his top staffers, offers a rare glimpse into the internal workings of his office.
The report suggested there was a widespread perception among corporations and their lobbyists that campaign contributions provided "enhanced" access to lawmakers and helped pave the way to obtaining earmarks. But the report also described a firewall that separated Dicks and his appropriations staff from fundraising efforts.
"There is not substantial reason to believe Rep. Dicks solicited or accepted contributions or other items of value in exchange for or because of an official act, or solicited or accepted contributions or other items of value in a manner which gave the appearance that the contributions were liked to an official act," the report concluded.
Dicks said he felt vindicated by the report.
"There was never a scintilla of evidence we did anything wrong," he said.
Though congressional watchdog groups criticized the report as being naive in discounting a tie between campaign contributions and earmarks, they were generally supportive of the Democratic reforms announced last week.
"This is a terrific first step in breaking the link between campaign dollars and legislation," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "It is ironic of course, that this action follows so closely on the heels of the House ethics committee PMA report, which found no link between contributions and earmarks, but then again no one really believed that anyway."
Republicans said the Democrats' new earmark policy did not go far enough. They announced that GOP House members would not seek any earmarks this year.
"This moratorium is the right course of action and I will not be requesting any earmarks this year," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
Dicks and Obey said that had their new policy had been in place during the current fiscal year, there would have been 1,000 or so fewer earmarks in the appropriations bills. Last year, there were 9,500 earmarks worth $16 billion inserted in the appropriations bills, according to Taxpayers For Common Sense, a bipartisan group that tracks congressionally mandated spending.
The latest policy specifically bars earmarks for for-profit companies, which according to critics are the most egregious because they can be linked to campaign contributions. Earmarks still would be allowed for nonprofit entities like universities or local governments. But in an effort to ensure companies don't set up nonprofit organizations to launder earmarked money back to them, government auditors would be required to audit 5 percent of all earmarks annually to prevent "for-profits from masquerading as nonprofits."
Dicks also plans on spending $500 million to $1 billion for a new Pentagon program that would provide grants to small businesses with innovative ideas. Money for the grants could not be earmarked.
Dicks has been supportive of recent efforts to rein in earmarks, but he has never been shy about securing them. Among his recent earmarks were $500,000 for the expansion of the Eastside Community Health Care Clinic in Tacoma, $200,000 to support the establishment of a museum and cultural center being planned by the Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society, and $200,000 to develop a new Institute of Technology at the University of Washington Tacoma.
In the current fiscal year, Dicks requested by himself or with other members 69 earmarks worth $81 million, ranking him 20th among House earmark recipients, Taxpayers for Common Sense said.
Dicks insists the Constitution gives Congress, not the White House, the "power of the purse." Bringing money back to their districts for worthwhile projects and programs is one of a congressman's responsibilities, he said.
Even so, Dicks said, "We were in an unsustainable position" when it came to the need for additional earmark reforms.
Steve Ellis, a vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, agreed.
"At some point, at the end of the day, these guys are politicians and earmarks have become political kryptonite," Ellis said.
About a fourth of last year's earmarks, $4.2 billion, were in the Pentagon spending bill, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. That's also four times as many as were included in any of the other appropriations bills.
The former head of the defense appropriations subcommittee, the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., was known as one of the "kings of pork" on Capitol Hill.
In 1970, Ellis said, there were fewer than a dozen earmarks in the defense spending bill. By 1980, it was up to 68, and in 2005, after a decade of Republican control of the House, it was up to 2,000.
"The vast majority of earmark growth came under Republicans," Ellis said.
During the last five elections, Dicks raised $5.4 million for his campaigns. About one-tenth of that, or $570,000, came from the defense industry, through corporate political action committees or individuals. Dicks also received substantial support from law and lobbyist firms, some of whom have defense clients, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions using data from the Federal Election Commission.
The congressman also has raised nearly $133,000 for his so-called leadership PAC, the National Organization to Retain the Majority, over the past two election cycles. Some of the largest contributors to the leadership PAC were defense-related companies including Boeing and Raytheon.
Among the major contributors to Dicks' campaign was the PMA Group, its PAC, employees and clients. During the 2008 election cycle and the current election cycle, Dicks received $56,000 in PMA-related campaign contributions, the ethics committee report said.
During the same period, Dicks secured $19.8 million in earmarks for four PMA clients, all of whom had offices in his congressional district.
Dicks has hired a professional fundraiser to help with the handful of campaign fundraisers he holds every election cycle in Washington, D.C., and in Washington state. The congressman said that he does not make fundraising calls himself and that if someone at one of his fundraisers mentions an earmark they are asked to leave.
"Rep. Dicks credibly articulated a process that separates his legislative duties and his campaign fundraising activities," the ethics committee report said, adding, "His campaign staff and professional fundraisers are isolated from his legislative agenda."
With his new chairmanship, Dicks will be under increased scrutiny for his ties to the defense industry. But Ellis said the initial signs are encouraging.
"Dicks is no slouch when it comes to earmarks, but there is a change in the tone and approach at the subcommittee," he said.
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