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Originally published August 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 5, 2007 at 2:08 AM

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Congress goes right on gorging on pork

If the idea was to shame lawmakers into restraint, it did not work. Eight months after Democrats vowed to shine light on the dark art of...

The New York Times

Growth industry

The volume of earmarks in spending bills has exploded in the past decade, from about 3,000 in 1996 to almost 16,000 in 2005.

The New York Times

WASHINGTON — If the idea was to shame lawmakers into restraint, it did not work.

Eight months after Democrats vowed to shine light on the dark art of "earmarking" money for pet projects, many lawmakers say the new visibility has only intensified the competition for projects by letting each member see exactly how many everyone else is receiving.

This year, House lawmakers have put together spending bills that include almost 6,500 earmarks for almost $11 billion in local projects, half of which the Bush administration opposed.

The earmark frenzy hit fever pitch in recent days, even as the Senate passed new rules that allow more public scrutiny of earmarks.

Far from causing embarrassment, the new transparency has raised the value of earmarks as a measure of members' clout. Indeed, lawmakers have often competed to have their names attached to individual earmarks and rushed to put out news releases claiming credit for the money they bring home.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has obtained about $63 million worth of projects, most in or near her district in San Francisco. But Pelosi was overshadowed by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, who obtained $163 million in pet projects, more than anyone in Congress and more than his own record of about $100 million.

The Democratic totals are less than half than the record set by Republicans when they controlled Congress in 2005, but they are far higher than the levels of just 10 years ago.

Among the thousands of earmarks tucked into House or Senate spending bills: $2.6 million for a new grape-genetics research center at Cornell University; $738,000 to study cancer-fighting chemicals in raspberries at Ohio State University; a contract for Texas A&M University to study the "root causes" of post-traumatic stress disorder; and $3.6 million to design a Coast Guard Operations Systems Center in Kearneysville, W.Va.

Aside from the risk of spending money on projects only because they make political sense, critics warn that earmarks fritter away significant parts of congressional time and make it harder for government agencies to focus on long-term goals. They also have become a tool for bargaining in Congress, offered to persuade lawmakers to vote against their own judgment on other issues.

When Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., recently ridiculed a provision on the House floor to spend $100,000 on a prison museum near Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., jumped to promote her district's heritage.

Leavenworth County, she boasted, had more prisons than any other county in the nation. Its inmates, she added, have included Machine Gun Kelly and the Birdman of Alcatraz (before he was sent to Alcatraz).

"The local residents are proud of their heritage, and rightly so," Boyda told Flake during a debate on the House floor. The House voted 317-112 to keep her earmark.

Flake met similar defeat trying to block $50,000 for the National Mule and Packers Museum in Bishop, Calif.; $150,000 for the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Ill.; $250,000 for the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser, Wash.; and $750,000 for the Alliance for NanoHealth in Houston.

"Everybody hates earmarks, but everybody loves earmarks," said Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services.

"What's happened is that the system is more open to the public, to the press and indeed to other members," Serrano said. "Of course, when it becomes open to other members, everybody looks around and says, 'Oh, I could have gotten that for myself.' "

It was not supposed to turn out this way. Last year, Democrats denounced the explosive growth of earmarks as a central part of what they called the "culture of corruption" under the Republican-led Congress.

They skewered the infamous $200 million "bridge to nowhere" that Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, had tried to finance. Last week, federal investigators searched Stevens' house in Alaska on suspicion that he had received renovation work from a company that he helped with an earmark.

Last year's outcry against earmarks was fueled in part by scandals surrounding Jack Abramoff, the disgraced former lobbyist. The concerns were heightened by the conviction of then-Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., on charges of taking millions of dollars in cash and gifts in exchange for inserting earmarks for a military contractor.

Pelosi never called for eliminating earmarks. Instead, she and other Democratic leaders sought to make the process open to more public scrutiny.

Even critics acknowledged that the Democrats have made the system less secretive and slightly less of a free-for-all.

Under rules the House adopted this year, all earmarks in a bill are supposed to be collected onto a single list in the report that accompanies the bill. Lawmakers must also file a "certification" that attaches their name to a proposed project, discloses the organization that will receive the money and declares that neither the lawmakers nor their spouses have a financial stake in it.

In practice, the disclosures can be difficult to read and incomplete. In addition, the certifications declare only that lawmakers and their spouses have no financial conflict; they are silent about financial ties other relatives may have.

Some Republicans have scorned the changes as inadequate. "We're lying to the American people when we say we're fixing earmarks when we're not," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said last week during debate on the Senate floor.

As in the past, a big percentage of earmarks this year went to the House leadership, including Pelosi, according to calculations by The New York Times and based on records assembled by Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Continuing another longtime practice of Republicans and Democrats alike, a disproportionate share of projects went to the so-called cardinals who chair each of the appropriation subcommittees.

Many lawmakers said the increased openness has put cardinals, such as Murtha, in an awkward position. Because everyone can see who is receiving what, rank-and-file members are clamoring for their districts to obtain a bigger share of the goodies. Similarly, constituents in home districts are becoming bolder as earmarking becomes less mysterious.

"Democracy is a contact sport, and I'm not going to be shy about asking for money for my community," said Boyda, who is being given the money for the prison museum. "My guess is that next year I'm going to be putting in more earmarks."

Even some enthusiastic supporters of earmarks have been taken aback by the flood of requests from lawmakers.

Serrano, the subcommittee chairman, said he was stumped on how to decide among requests from more than 100 lawmakers.

Instead of trying to weigh one project against another, he said, he identified all the projects that appeared suitable and split the money so that each lawmaker received $231,000 in earmarks from his subcommittee.

"It was the fairest approach I could take," Serrano said. "The jury is still out on whether this is the right approach. I'm not saying I will do it again next year."

Ron Nixon contributed reporting.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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