Earmark helps businesses, not troops
Seattle Times special report | After being lobbied by companies making a decontamination powder, powerful U.S. senators Charles Schumer, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Arlen Specter forced the military to keep buying what it considers inferior chemical-warfare protection for the troops.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Trail of earmarks
1990: U.S. military issues troops a kit with powder to absorb chemical-warfare agents from the skin. The product is known as M291.
1991: Canadian soldiers are issued a new lotion, RSDL, that removes chemical agents.
2003: The Pentagon discovers the lotion used in Canada is up to seven times more effective than the powder used by U.S. soldiers.
2005: The Pentagon tells Congress it plans to replace the powder with the lotion within two years.
2005: Rohm and Haas, which makes a key ingredient in the powder, begins lobbying Congress for earmarks for its exclusive product. The Defense Department buys a large stockpile.
2006: Sens. Clinton, Schumer and others put a $2 million earmark in the 2007 defense bill, requiring the military to buy additional M291 kits.
March 2007: After years of scientific testing, the Pentagon switches to the lotion, with no plans to buy more M291. But Sens. Clinton, Specter and others put a $5.6 million earmark for M291 powder in the 2008 defense bill, forcing the military to buy the inferior product.
November 2007: Senators add explicit language to the defense bill to force the military to buy the key ingredient from Rohm and Haas, even though the military has switched to the lotion.
Source: Seattle Times reporting
The Favor Factory earns national recognition
• The National Press Foundation has named The Favor Factory as the best multimedia coverage of Congress in the nation.
• Reporters David Heath and Hal Bernton will receive the 2008 Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for the series on Congressional earmarks at a National Press Club dinner in Washington, D.C., in February.
• The series also was recently named the national runner-up for the Barlett & Steele Awards for investigative business journalism from Arizona State University's journalism program.
• The series won the Clark Mollenhoff Award for investigative reporting from the Fund for American Studies at Georgetown University.
• And it received the Ted M. Natt First Amendment Award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association.
The Seattle Times
Scientists have discovered a lotion that can save the lives of U.S. soldiers exposed to chemical weapons — a product vastly superior to the standard-issue decontamination powder.
Naturally, the Defense Department wants to scrap the powder and switch to the more-effective lotion.
But there's a problem: After being lobbied by the companies making the powder, several members of Congress pushed through two earmarks worth $7.6 million that forced the military for the past two years to keep buying the inferior product.
The product, known as M291, is made from a resin sold exclusively by a Pennsylvania chemical company, which is then processed into powder by a New York company, then assembled into individual kits at a facility in Arkansas.
Among the lawmakers who championed the earmarks are Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.; Arlen Specter, R-Pa.; and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Clinton, who is poised to become secretary of state, received nearly $7,000 in campaign donations from the beneficiaries of these earmarks in recent years. Specter got more than $47,000.
Lawmakers put earmarks into bills to make federal agencies buy things the agencies didn't request, often circumventing the normal process of evaluation and competitive bidding.
The secretive practice has become mired in controversy and scandal, so Congress promised to reveal details about each earmark and drastically cut back on them.
But Congress continues to churn out earmarks, inserting more than 2,100 worth $8.5 billion in this year's defense bill — often without any disclosure, a Seattle Times investigation found.
The M291 earmarks reveal how lawmakers can micromanage military purchases to suit the needs of companies, constituents or campaign donors — instead of the needs of the soldiers.
Chemical warfare is a serious threat should U.S. troops ever clash with forces in Iran, Syria or North Korea, experts say. Most soldiers — including those at Fort Lewis — are still equipped with M291.
The decision of whether to give soldiers the powder or the lotion is ultimately up to commanders in the field, so the M291 earmarks don't necessarily mean troops will end up with inferior protection.
But by forcing the military to buy the older product, lawmakers are taking that chance, says Winslow Wheeler, a director at the nonpartisan Center for Defense Information. The M291 earmarks show that Congress still hasn't reformed, he said. "The pork process pays little attention to merit, reason and analysis."
Powder vs. lotion
On the chance that troops may be exposed to a chemical attack, they are issued protective gear, including gas masks, injectable antidotes and decontamination kits. Just a few droplets of nerve agents such as Sarin, Soman or VX can be lethal, so a decontaminant can save a soldier's life.
The Pentagon has relied on M291 kits since 1990. The wallet-sized pouch contains pads with charcoallike powder that when rubbed on the skin absorbs the chemical agents.
Soldiers in Canada used a similar powder, but in the late 1980s government researchers there were worried about it. The powder was messy, difficult to apply and fouled gas masks. Worst of all, researchers feared that any deadly agents absorbed by the powder would release toxic gases inside a soldier's mask, said Garfield Purdon, a lead scientist on the research.
So Purdon's team at Canada's defense department developed a new product called Reactive Skin Decontamination Lotion, or RSDL. The lotion, wiped on the skin with pads, not only absorbs the chemical agents but neutralizes them as well, offering soldiers greater protection.
Canada issued the new lotion to soldiers fighting in the 1991 Gulf War. Its military later licensed the lotion to E-Z-EM, a New York company, on the condition that it make the product in Canada.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Defense Department said it was evaluating RSDL for use. At the urging of the Army Surgeon General, the Food and Drug Administration in 2003 approved the lotion.
"If used in time, this lotion can help prevent the serious burns and deaths that result from exposure to chemical-warfare agents," FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan announced. "FDA worked with the U.S. Army to expedite review of this product to make it available to our men and women in uniform as quickly as possible."
Scientists conducted more tests, comparing the effectiveness of the lotion with the M291 kit. They found the lotion to be as much as seven times more effective at protecting soldiers, depending on the chemical agent, the Defense Department told The Seattle Times.
Earmarks for the powder
The Pentagon told Congress in 2005 that it expected to replace the M291 kit with the RSDL. At the same time, Rohm and Haas, the Philadelphia company making the M291 resin, turned to Congress to keep its product alive through an earmark. The company spent $830,000 lobbying Congress and the military on the decontamination kits and other issues in 2005, public records show. Since then, the company has spent another $2.3 million lobbying Congress.
The Defense Department bought huge stockpiles of Rohm and Haas' resin in 2005 and 2006, enough to last through 2012, said Douglas Bryce, second in command of the DOD's joint chemical- and biological-defense office.
After the large purchases of resin, the military didn't include funding for M291 kits in its budget because the product was being phased out, Bryce said.
But members of Congress had different plans. Staffers for Sens. Clinton and Schumer met with Daniel Kohn, president of Truetech, a Riverhead, N.Y., company that mixed the powder from the resin and produced the kits.
"In self-defense, we've gone to our representatives in Congress and we've said: 'You know, let's lay our cards on the table — we're in business to provide a living and jobs in your district,' " Kohn said in a recent interview.
Clinton, Schumer and others added a $2 million earmark to the 2007 defense bill, instructing the military to buy M291 kits.
In March 2007, the Defense Department gave all branches of the service the go-ahead to buy RSDL.
Although it hadn't intended to buy any more M291 kits, the military honored the earmark and bought more kits from Truetech and Pine Bluff Arsenal, a federal facility in Arkansas that assembles them. With its huge stockpile of resin, the military bought nothing from Rohm and Haas.
Rohm and Haas went back to Congress and got another $5.6 million earmark in the 2008 defense bill.
This time the list of 10 sponsors included Sen. Specter of Pennsylvania, who has received $38,000 in campaign donations from Rohm and Haas' employees and its political-action committee since 2004. Clinton has received $5,600 in campaign donations in the past two years from Rohm and Haas' chief executive officer, Rajiv Gupta, and his wife.
The lawmakers scolded the Defense Department for not buying any resin the year before.
"This decision may jeopardize the U.S. industrial base for chemical skin decontamination technology," lawmakers wrote in a report attached to the bill. The new earmark "shall be used both for the purchase of raw materials and the packaging of the kits."
The lawmakers had been "expecting somebody in Pennsylvania to get some money to do something, and we ended up giving it to Arkansas and New York," said Bryce of the Defense Department.
As a result of the second earmark, Bryce said, the military bought $1 million of resin from Rohm and Haas and spent $4.4 million for decontamination kits. The military now has 2.2 million powder kits in stock.
Clinton and Schumer did not respond to requests for comment.
Specter and a spokeswoman for Rohm and Haas defended the second earmark, saying the company asked for it before the military made its final decision to switch to RSDL.
However, lawmakers added language scolding the military and approved the earmark in November 2007 — eight months after the military's switch.
Another Pennsylvania sponsor of the second earmark, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., offered a different rationale for the favor. The earmark "was never intended to pick a winner" but to support both products, Schwartz said.
She is "disappointed" that the military isn't going to buy the powder anymore.
Schwartz received $8,000 in donations from executives and the political action committee at Rohm and Haas, a leading employer in her district.
Earmark for the lotion, too
E-Z-EM, the New York maker of the lotion with the military's blessing, decided to get its own earmark, and lobbied Congress. Result: a $3.2 million earmark for the lotion in the 2009 defense bill.
Its sponsor, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the company deserved the favor.
Without the earmark, Cochran said in a statement, "this lifesaving product would not get to our troops as expediently as it should."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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