Lettermarking, the way to earmark under the radar...

Discussion in 'Politics & Religion' started by OPTIONAL777, Dec 28, 2010.

  1. December 27, 2010
    Lawmakers Finance Pet Projects Without Earmarks

    WASHINGTON — No one was more critical than Representative Mark Steven Kirk when President Obama and the Democratic majority in the Congress sought passage last year of a $787 billion spending bill intended to stimulate the economy. And during his campaign for the Illinois Senate seat once held by Mr. Obama, Mr. Kirk, a Republican, boasted of his vote against “Speaker Pelosi’s trillion-dollar stimulus plan.”

    Though Mr. Kirk and other Republicans thundered against pork-barrel spending and lawmakers’ practice of designating money for special projects through earmarks, they have not shied from using a less-well-known process called lettermarking to try to direct money to projects in their home districts.

    Mr. Kirk, for example, sent a letter to the Department of Education dated Sept. 10, 2009, asking it to release money “needed to support students and educational programs” in a local school district. The letter was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the group Citizens Against Government Waste, which shared it with The New York Times.

    The district, Woodland School District 50, said it later received about $1.1 million in stimulus money.

    In response to questions about the letter, a spokeswoman for Mr. Kirk defended the practice of reaching out to federal agencies to secure financing for constituents.

    “Senator-elect Kirk became the first member of the Appropriations Committee to stop requesting earmarks and voted against the stimulus bill,” the spokeswoman, Susan Kuczka, said in a prepared statement. “He has and will continue to be an advocate for his Illinois constituents before administration agencies but will not request Congressional earmarks to be included in House or Senate legislation.”

    Lettermarking, which takes place outside the Congressional appropriations process, is one of the many ways that legislators who support a ban on earmarks try to direct money back home.

    In phonemarking, a lawmaker calls an agency to request financing for a project. More indirectly, members of Congress make use of what are known as soft earmarks, which involve making suggestions about where money should be directed, instead of explicitly instructing agencies to finance a project. Members also push for increases in financing of certain accounts in a federal agency’s budget and then forcefully request that the agency spend the money on the members’ pet project.

    Because all these methods sidestep the regular legislative process, the number of times they are used and the money involved are even harder to track than with regular earmarks.

    But a New York Times review of letters and e-mail to government agencies from members of Congress shows that the practice is widespread despite the fact that both President George W. Bush and President Obama have issued executive orders instructing agencies not to finance projects based on communications from Congress.

    Under the leadership of Representative John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who will be speaker of the House in the new Congress, and pressed by Tea Party supporters who want to curb government spending, Republicans have called for a ban on earmarks, saying they have become symbol of what is wrong in Washington.

    Michael Steel, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner, said the earmark ban was “an unprecedented step for the House,” adding, “We’ll be working to ensure that it is as fair and effective as possible in terms of enforcement.”

    The Senate rejected an earmarks ban in a vote during the lame-duck session of Congress.

    In any case, many people both inside and outside Congress remain skeptical that much will change if earmarks are banned, since legislators have a history of finding new ways to try to get money for their districts.

    David E. Williams, vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste, likened the effort to stamp out earmarks to a game of “Whack-a-Mole.”

    “When one door closes, there is always two or three more that they can go through,” Mr. Williams said, adding that he feared that lawmakers would develop even less transparent ways to finance their special projects.

    But Representative Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who is a longtime opponent of earmarks, still sees merit in banning them.

    “There’s no way you can stamp out every effort by lawmakers to bring home the pork,” Mr. Flake said. “But you can marginalize it, and a ban on earmarks would be going a long way in doing that.”

    Supporters of an earmark ban point out that unlike earmarks written into a spending bill, requests for financing made through letters, phone calls or other methods are not legally binding on an agency.

    But Winslow T. Wheeler, a former Senate appropriations and national security aide who worked for both Democrats and Republicans over three decades before stepping down in 2002, said agencies were loath to ignore requests from legislators, especially appropriators like Mr. Kirk.

    “When you have people who control your budget, that you have to appear before on an annual basis to ask for funding, you listen to what they have to say,” Mr. Wheeler said.

    Mr. Boehner and other Republicans who will be in the House leadership in the new Congress did not respond to questions about whether or how they would try to address practices like lettermarking and soft earmarks.

    Mr. Flake said he had raised the issue with Mr. Boehner, adding, “I’m confident that he heard me and will address these things, too.”

    Soft earmarks alone accounted for billions of dollars in spending in 2006, the last year they were examined, according the Congressional Research Service. They occur most often in spending bills for State Department, the United States Agency for International Development and other foreign aid programs.

    In 2010, the soft earmarks included suggestions to finance the Esperanza International, a micro-lending organization based in Washington State that was started by David Valle, a former major league baseball player, and the Real Property Foundation, a group in Chicago made up of American real estate agents that promotes private property rights around the world.

    Patrick M. Cronin, a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security and a former administrator at the Agency for International Development, said soft earmarks were commonly used by members of Congress, especially appropriators.

    “They would tell you that they wanted money to go to a particular university or group or the next time you wouldn’t get the funding in the budget you wanted,” Dr. Cronin said. “So it’s true that you can ignore some soft earmarks, but others you have to take more seriously. Agency heads are not going to put their budgets in jeopardy because of a few line items.”

    Military spending bills regularly contain financing that the Pentagon did not seek for projects in Congressional districts.

    Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that tracks federal spending, refers to such financing as “undisclosed earmarks.” These expenditures end up in a bill at the request of lawmakers or military contractors, but the source of the request does not have to be disclosed because the provisions do not meet the Congressional definition of an earmark.

    The 2010 military bill, for example, contained expenditures that the Pentagon did not want: $2.5 billion for C-17 transport planes; $825 million for all-terrain vehicles; $732 million for other planes, and $500 million for a second engine for the F-35 jet.

    Taxpayers for Common Sense found 146 such undisclosed earmarks totaling nearly $6 billion in 2010 spending bills.

    “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” Mr. Ellis said. “These are clearly earmarks.”
  2. This type of republican hypocrisy has even been seen in Ron Paul, who decries spending...but makes every effort to see money goes to his own district and Texas.

    Rationalizing the practice..."well...since the money was already there...why not take it?"