‘Bridge to Nowhere’ lawmaker decries earmarks in stimulus
And some of the language is just as artfully crafted.
The package includes an insurance exemption — but only for companies that work on recreational boats longer than 65 feet. Another provision would lift a Medicare regulation affecting only three long-term care hospitals in the country. There’s also language requiring the Transportation Security Administration to buy 100,000 uniforms from U.S. apparel makers.
In theory and publicity, the package is “earmark free.” But it contains dozens of narrowly defined programs that send money to specific areas or cater to special interests, despite President Obama’s pledge to pass “an economic recovery plan that is free from earmarks and pet projects.”
Some — like the yacht workers’ exemption — would take little or nothing from taxpayer pockets. Others, like $3 billion in extra transit money added in by the House, are handing ammo to critics who say the stimulus plan, now at about $900 billion in the Senate, has morphed into a Christmas list.
As part of the ShovelWatch project with WNYC radio in New York, ProPublica plumbed the depths of the stimulus bills looking to see how closely Congress is coming to Obama’s stated goal.
In part, the answer hinges on what’s an “earmark.” Democrats insist they are nowhere in the plan; Republicans see “pork” everywhere. So we cribbed from criteria Congress laid out in a 2007 reform bill: language that aims spending at specific programs, states or localities, often at a member’s request.
Specific location? The Senate stimulus contains $50 million for habitat restoration and other water needs in the San Francisco Bay area. There is another $62 million for military projects in Guam.
Specific contractors? The Senate bill directs $1.2 billion to the Transportation Security Administration for hardware, including explosive detection machines, which are made by only three companies: General Electric, L-3 Communications and Reveal Imaging Technologies.
Specific program? There’s $198 million to compensate Filipino World War II veterans for their service. Most don’t live in the United States.
In a speech about the stimulus last month, Obama acknowledged that there often are valid arguments for earmarks. At the same time, he called for restraint.
“Many of these projects are worthy and benefit local communities,” he said. “But this emergency legislation must not be the vehicle for those aspirations. This must be a time when leaders in both parties put the urgent needs of our nation above our own narrow interests.”
By far the bulk of the stimulus spending will be doled out through agencies like the Department of Transportation or programs such as Medicaid and food stamps that use existing formulas. That brings some accountability to road and bridge projects, for example, which typically go through a state process that determines which should get funded first. Transit money, too, is allotted by formula.
But when the sausage-making gets going on Capitol Hill, there’s always an end around.
Two House Democrats with a hunger for transit money — Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York and Ed Perlmutter of Colorado — helped secure the extra $3 billion, pushing total transit funding in the House bill to $12 billion. Nadler touted it as a boon for commuters that would help New York City’s financially strapped subway system jumpstart work on a huge backlog of projects.
‘Not the Flamingo Hall of Fame’
Supporters of the narrowly defined projects say criticism is unwarranted. Their projects not only save or create jobs, they say, but in some cases correct oversights in previous legislation and add little to nothing to the overall cost of the stimulus package.
No doubt the yacht repair yards in Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s district in South Florida would benefit from the insurance exemption for work on boats longer than 65 feet.
The current law governing such insurance was intended to draw a distinction between workers on recreational boats and workers on big ships, who faced greater dangers and were required to carry additional longshoremen’s insurance, she explained in offering the provision.
But since then, yachts have gotten longer and owners have skipped to Mexico, Canada or Caribbean for cheaper repairs, creating a hardship for small businesses in South Florida, Seattle, Massachusetts and the Great Lakes, said Wasserman Schultz’s spokesman, Jonathan Beeton.
“It’s not the Flamingo Hall of Fame,” he said. “This is if you are a carpet installer… In order for you to go in as a small business owner and step foot on that boat, you have to have longshoreman insurance for your employees.”
“The economic impact on these areas is pretty high,” he said.
Rep. Larry Kissell made a similar argument when he offered the amendment for TSA uniforms [PDF], which are made from fabric from North Carolina but sewn together in Mexico and Honduras. Working in the local textile industry for 27 years, Kissell witnessed plant closings as more and more jobs fled overseas.
“The immediate impact would be to bring the assembly work to the U.S., which would create jobs,” said Lloyd Wood of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, an industry group that has lobbied for the provision for five years.
But there is also political bonus for Kissell, a freshman congressman. If the amendment survives, he and Democrats would gain an early victory that Kissell’s Republican predecessor couldn’t secure.
Righting Wrongs, Rewarding Service
The provision involving the Medicare regulation for three hospitals demonstrates how easily complexity gets lost in the political wrangling.
The amendment was inserted by Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., in the House Ways and Means Committee. The three hospitals that would benefit are in or near the districts of Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., and Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., who sit on the Ways and Means Committee. The president of the Connecticut hospital is also president of the National Association of Long Term Hospitals, which has lobbied for the change.
“Would this be considered an earmark?” Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., pressed Stark at the committee meeting.
“We get information from members about hospitals in their district that are affected,” answered Stark, chairman of the health subcommittee. “We try and always have tried, as far as I can remember the last 25 years, to accommodate the requirements of hospitals in members’ district in so far that we think it’s good policy.”
“Whether you could ascribe an earmark to the member who brought it to us or not,” said Stark, “is up to the person who wants to raise the issue or not.”
Larson spokeswoman Emily Barocas said the measure fixes a mistake in a previous law that unintentionally excluded the three hospitals. The Stark amendment means additional Medicare funding for the hospitals. Association officials and aides to Pomeroy did not return calls.
Stark has also drawn scrutiny for another provision, first reported by The Associated Press, that would reverse a $134 million Medicare cut for hospice care. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization has fought against the reduction, spending $1 million last year and employing 10 outside lobbyists, according to public records compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
One of those lobbyists was once a top aide to Stark and the Ways and Means Committee. Stark’s office denied that the congressman or the committee had contact with the former aide and lobbyist, but the hospice organization said he worked directly on getting the Medicare provision into the bill.
“I don’t think there was undue influence — this provision has been vetted and studied,” said Jon Keyserling, the organization’s vice president for public policy. “Someone has to step up and speak for patients and families who are going to be denied services if this rate cut was allowed to go into effect.”
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, hasn’t said that Filipino veterans’ compensation would stimulate the economy. The matter is more one of fulfilling a moral obligation made generations ago.
In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt enlisted about 470,000 residents of the Phillipines, at the time a U.S. commonwealth, to fight the Japanese. Many were captured or killed in the war, including in the Bataan Death March. The president promised compensation, but it was revoked by Congress in 1946.
Since then, Filipino veterans — now aged 85 to 98 — have fought to restore it, and Inouye has been a big supporter. “The nation made a solemn promise,” he said. “This is not the America I know and love.” Under the Senate bill, Filipino vets who are U.S. citizens would get $15,000; noncitizens would get $9,000.
Washington’s New Parlor Game
Fear of having their handiwork labeled an “earmark” has led some drafters to some awkward circumlocutions. Take this wording from the section of the Senate Appropriations Committee report on $2 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers:
“The committee has granted extraordinary discretion to the administration in determining how the funds provided in this act should be expended. …The committee is not recommending funding for specific projects in this act. However, the committee has had extensive consultation with the Corps concerning how the funds provided under this heading could be used in broad program categories.”
Such cryptic language has spawned a Washington parlor game: What do the appropriators actually mean? For example, the House bill gives a priority for higher education repairs to institutions “affected by a Gulf hurricane disaster.” Is that Tulane University in New Orleans? The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston?
Clever drafting could give Democrats enough cover to say they met the president’s goal, said Keith Ashdown of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
“I think it’s been watered down enough that it gives the administration deniability that they can meet that pledge,” said Ashdown, whose group advocates for better disclosure of congressional earmarks. “They can say there are no earmarks in this legislation, but when you look at the details of each provision, the reality becomes murkier.”
The Democrats have backed down on some things. Amid criticism, House Democrats pulled $200 million for Washington’s National Mall and a provision extending Medicaid to family planning. Senate Democrats dropped $75 million for programs to help smokers quit and $400 million to fight HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Senators also voted to kill a tax break that would have allowed Hollywood studios to write off production costs for movies and TV shows.
The tempest over earmarking has made for some ironic moments. Take the case of Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who put out a statement bashing Democrats for projects he deemed questionable.
“I have never been shy about seeking projects in those bills for my constituents,” Young exclaimed, “but we have specific vehicles for that and this bill is not it.”
Young, of course, is the former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. In 2005, he teamed up with former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens to snag one of the most infamous earmarks ever: $223 million for a project that became known as the “Bridge to Nowhere.”
ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.
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