WASHINGTON - So much for trimming the pork.
The practice of decorating legislation with billions of dollars in pet projects and federal contracts is still thriving on Capitol Hill - despite public outrage that helped flip control of Congress two years ago.
More than 11,000 of those "earmarks," worth nearly $15 billion in all, were slipped into legislation telling the government where to spend taxpayers' money this year, keeping the issue at the center of Washington's culture of money, influence and politics. Now comes an election-year encore.
It's a pay-to-play sandbox where waste and abuse often obscure the good that earmarks can do.
An examination of many of those earmarks found much greater disclosure since 2006 but no end to what has become ingrained behavior in Congress.
Millions of the dollars support lobbying firms that help companies, universities, local governments and others secure what critics call pork-barrel spending. The law forbids using federal grants to lobby, but lobbyists do charge clients fees that often equal 10 percent of the largesse.
Earmark winners and their lobbyists often reward their benefactors with campaign contributions. For many members of Congress, campaign donations from earmark-seeking lobbyists and corporate executives are the core of their fund-raising.
Rules forbid lawmakers from raising campaign funds from congressional offices, but members and their aides sometimes find ways to skirt them.
"I know a bunch of members that if you go in to see them, somewhere in the conversation they somehow say, 'Well, we were looking through our list of campaign contributors and didn't happen to see you there,' " said Frank Cushing, a lobbyist with the National Group, which lobbies on appropriations bills. "Is there a quid pro quo? No, not directly, but you'd have to be pretty dense not to figure it out."
The explicit campaign solicitations usually take place in the days after a meeting where an earmark is discussed.
For all the outcry, most earmarks have much to commend them. Just because a lawmaker arranges a project for his home district doesn't mean it isn't worthy.
But many also go to causes or projects that, on the surface, don't appear all that necessary.
Despite the questions and public outrage over high-profile earmarking abuses, the system that now-jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff once called "the favor factory" is still running full tilt. Congress disclosed 11,234 earmarks totaling $14.8 billion in bills covering government spending this year, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group. The White House puts the total at $18 billion, including the amounts that lawmakers added to what President Bush sought for specific projects.
A new earmarking cycle begins this month as the House and Senate Appropriations committees reveal spending bills for the 2009 budget year that starts Oct. 1. The House committee alone has 23,438 earmark requests before it, so many that its Web site for accepting requests froze up and the deadline for receiving them had to be extended. Lawmakers are unlikely to obtain many earmarks in time for Election Day, but they may tout them in hundreds of news releases anyway.
Defenders of earmarks note that the founding fathers explicitly gave Congress control over spending. And earmarks make up less than 2 percent of the annual spending bills passed each year.
Examples abound of lawmakers' winning earmarks for specific companies or institutions, and then receiving campaign contributions from the recipients or their lobbyists.
TPI Composites, a defense contractor, received $2.4 million in the 2008 defense spending bill to develop an all-composite military vehicle. The benefactor was Rep. David L. Hobson, an Ohio Republican who sits on the House defense appropriations subcommittee. The Columbus Dispatch reports that TPI executives have donated $10,000 to Hobson in recent years and that a TPI lobbyist has contributed $5,000 to his campaigns since 2003.
"I don't look at how much money people have given me," Hobson, who is retiring at the end of this year, told the Dispatch. "I don't care who gives me money. If we don't think [an earmark] is good, we won't do it. At some point you have to say to yourself, 'Do I trust the person in this office to do the right thing and stand up and say no at the right time?' People shouldn't have voted for me if they thought I could be bought."
An earmark provides
funding for a specific project, contract or grant not requested by the president but inserted into one of the annual spending bills.
in countless varieties. Job-training programs, grants to police departments, improvements to military bases, renovations to historical buildings, and research grants for home-district colleges are just a few. They help pay for food banks and child-care centers, sewer systems, roads and bridges, and equipment purchased by the Pentagon.
Earmarks can do
a lot of good. But Congress has been rocked in recent years by revelations of wasteful earmarks. In recent years, a half dozen lawmakers have come under Justice Department scrutiny over earmarks.