The Situationist

The Situation of Earmarks

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 27, 2008

The February 22 edition of Bill Moyers Journal (PBS) “profiles Seattle Times reporters on the trail of how members of Congress have awarded federal dollars for questionable purposes to companies in local Congressional districts—often to companies whose executives, employees or PACs have made campaign contributions to their legislators.”  It’s a fascinating 30-minute story that illustrates some of the situational sources of political manipulation and capture.

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To provide a flavor of the half-hour report, we’ve included a few transcript excerpts below.

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Tonight our subject is the growing scandal surrounding earmarks. Once upon a time an earmark was just that — a mark farmers made on the ears of livestock for identification. No longer. An earmark is how politicians fund their pet projects — including some that reward their pet donors. In this year’s spending bills alone Congress has inserted 12,881 earmarks worth over 18 billion dollars. . . .

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NARRATOR: Reporters David Heath and Hal Bernton [reporters for the Seattle Times] have come to a tiny Washington town in pursuit of a big story.

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Heath and Bernton are here in Bremerton following a money trail chasing down what are known as “earmarks” — the federal dollars that members of Congress slip into spending bills, often at the last minute, usually to benefit individuals, companies or institutions in their state or district.

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Earmarks are a perfectly legal form of political pork — and nearly everyone in Congress sponsors them. But as these reporters have learned, they’re not always easy to track.

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DAVID HEATH: There were a lot of scandals going on at the time. You had a Congressman in San Diego, Duke Cunningham, who was taking bribes . . .

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JIM LEHRER: Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty today in a major investigation of influence peddling. He appeared in federal court on…

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NARRATOR: In each of these cases, a crime occurred; people went to jail.

But every year, private interests donate millions of dollars to congressional campaigns, and Congress doles out tens of billions in earmarks and it’s all business as usual.

DAVID HEATH: Sometimes you have scandals where you have a Congressman taking bribes and you think, “Okay, well that was a bad actor.” The question is, is that all there is or is it, or is this something bigger that’s going on? Is there something wrong with the whole culture?

NARRATOR: To try to answer that question, Heath would ultimately have to leave the comfortable terrain of the state of Washington for the back room dealings of that other Washington. But first, he would do some reporting with his computer. A specialist in data analysis, he decided to home in on Congress’s 2007 defense spending bill all 400 billion dollars of it. His plan seemed simple: he’d create a database jammed with everything he could find on the bill’s earmarks. He just needed to get the list of them. But there was no list to be found.

DAVID HEATH: They’re literally hidden. I mean they, they’re not in the bill. They’re not in the defense bill. And I finally had to call an expert, a guy who, named Winslow Wheeler, and ask him, “Where are these earmarks anyway? How do you find them?”

NARRATOR: Few understand earmarks better than Winslow Wheeler. The former Capitol Hill staffer spent more than 30 years serving powerful senators from both parties often helping to craft earmarks for his bosses.

WINSLOW WHEELER: If you look at a Department of Defense appropriations bill, you’ll, you’ll not find very much pork in it. What you need to do is look at the committee report — 99% of the pork is in the committee report, not in the statute.

NARRATOR: That is -the “Conference Committee Report. Before a bill is passed, both Houses meet in conference. It’s there that they hammer out all their differences, and they finalize their earmarks. When Heath found the 2007 Defense Appropriations Conference Committee Report online, he struck gold: 2700 earmarks, worth nearly 12 billion dollars. Now it was simply a matter of transferring the earmarks into his own database. He’d get some assistance from two college interns.

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NARRATOR: In fact, deciphering Congress’s earmarks proved nearly impossible.

DAVID HEATH: They’d actually taken simple text and they shrunk it down, tiny little type.seattle-times-logo.gif

LIZ BURLINGAME: You couldn’t copy and paste any of the information into the database.

DAVID HEATH: And on top of that, the earmarks themselves are in language that’s like a code.

CHANEL MERRITT: Four million dollars, this is just an example, uhm, for NG4BW. And you’re like, “What?”

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DAVID HEATH: It was like they had hired a consultant to figure out how to make this as hard as possible.

NARRATOR: Winslow Wheeler told Heath that to unscramble the earmarks, he should take advantage of Congress’s penchant for self-promotion.

WINSLOW WHEELER: A lot of these members of Congress put out press releases that delineate the pork they’ve added to the various bills. And in there you can probably find out who the manufacturer is. You can get, rather than three words to describe it, you can get maybe three sentences. And you start unraveling the string.

DAVID HEATH: There’s 535 members of Congress. And I had to go through their individual websites and basically spend all that time hunting through their Web sites for that press release about their earmarks.

DAVID HEATH: I got to know, by the end of the process, the name of every single company that got an earmark. OK, there was a company that sells shock absorbers had gotten an earmark. There was an eye doctor, you know, one-man shop that had gotten an earmark.

NARRATOR: It took Heath and his team months of full-time work, but in the end they had produced an unprecedented database containing a list of all the earmarks in the defense bill, the congressional sponsors and the private-sector recipients. They also added information on six years’ worth of campaign contributions made by those earmark recipients, plus data on the millions they spent lobbying Congress.

DAVID HEATH: For lobbying expenses they had spent, in 2006 alone, one year, 160 million dollars lobbying Congress. Big money, but they got 12 billion dollars in earmarks.

NARRATOR: But unless a bribe can be proven, earmarks aren’t illegal. And for all David Heath knew, they might well be critical to the nation’s defense. To find out, Heath would look into what taxpayers were buying with all the earmarked money.

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NARRATOR: After nearly a year’s painstaking work, it was time for Mr. Heath to go to Washington. In the fall of 2007, Heath journeyed to the nation’s Capitol and sat down to interview Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Norm Dicks. Both defended their earmarks, and denied any wrongdoing.

NORM DICKS (audio): There’s never, ever been any quid pro quo. You know, people, if they want to support me they support me. If they don’t want to support me, I still might do their earmark. I mean, if I thought it was a worthy project. If you went to a system where you couldn’t take a campaign contribution, then the only people you could get- the.only people you could get money from are people that you’ve never helped.

NARRATOR: Senator Murray told Heath that her earmarks gave Washington State businesses a fair shot at federal dollars:

PATTY MURRAY (audio): People tend to talk about earmarks as something that is a bad thing. I see it as a way to make sure that the tax dollars that are spent are spent in a very wise way and help our state economically.

NARRATOR: When pressed specifically on the problems Heath had uncovered with the Nomad, Murray admitted things don’t always turn out well:

PATTY MURRAY (audio): I wish every single dollar that I put in to any project was a thousand percent successful. It’s unfortunate that there is one that isn’t working well and nobody regrets it more than I do. None of us bat a thousand, and obviously this one didn’t or potentially hasn’t and, you know, we’ll just keep trying to get close to a thousand as we can. That’s what my job is.

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NARRATOR: The TIMES “did the story” in the fall of 2007: the earmarks, the campaign contributions, the money spent on products the military didn’t want or couldn’t use and the response from the legislators.

And on its Web site, the paper has posted David Heath’s one-of-a-kind database. Now, anybody can find out about those 2700 defense bill earmarks.

And Heath is not stopping there. He’s writing follow-up stories, and is creating an earmark database for all 2008 appropriations bills.

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BILL MOYERS: Don’t, for a moment, think that the “favor factory” uncovered by SEATTLE TIMES reporter David Heath is unique to the Pacific Northwest. To the contrary there are 535 members of Congress and only 13 of them requested no earmarks last year. Thirteen out of 535.

Top prize in the house for raking in the earmarks goes to Republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi with over 177 million dollars. Before moving to the Senate this year he was on the House Appropriations Committee, which attracts campaign contributions like honey attracts bees. Others on the top ten list: Murtha $176 million, Young $169 million, Hoyer $139 million, and on and on.

Over in the Senate the champion earmarker is Thad Cochran also of Mississippi. He’s the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, that’s another big honey pot. Runners up after Thad Cochran’s $837 million dollars are: Landrieu, Stevens, Bond, Shelby, Inouye, Byrd, Murray, Clinton, Durbin.

JEFF FLAKE: I rise today for concern over what earmarks are doing to this body.

BILL MOYERS: Republican Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona has been fighting earmarks.

JEFF FLAKE: For every group that directly benefits from earmarks there are hundreds who see it as a transparent gimmick to ensure our own reelection. Mr. Speaker, our constituents deserve better. This institution deserves better than we’re giving it. Let’s return to the time honored practice of authorization, appropriation, and oversight that has served us so well.

BILL MOYERS: But look what happens when you take on the system. Jeff Flake wanted a seat on the House Appropriations Committee but the party’s leaders turned him down.

Public discontent over the corruption of earmarks has produced some modest results. The House now requires members to put their names next to the projects receiving the money. At least citizens have a better chance at finding out who’s getting the loot. Go to our Web site on and you’ll find links to several watchdog groups like the Sunlight Foundation and Taxpayers for Common Sense, who have made it easier for all of us to follow the money.

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