Congress and earmarks: What does it mean for my district?

Feb 08, 2012

Thirty-three members of Congress have directed more than $300 million in earmarks and other spending provisions to dozens of public projects that are next to or within about two miles of the lawmakers' own property, according to a Washington Post investigation.

View the
full results of the Post investigation, and then chat with the Post's David Fallis, Scott Higham and Kimberly Kindy to get details.

Ask questions about the investigation, including what they found, what it means for your district, the legality of the earmarks and more. Submit questions, comments and opinions now.

Related:
About Capitol Assets series
Full coverage: Capitol Assets series
Mapping the earmarks
Congressional earmarks sometimes used to fund projects near lawmakers' properties
Sen. Richard Shelby earmarked money for project near his building

Hi there. Thanks much for reading our series over the past two days. We're happy to answer any questions you might have.

Thanks for the story. Obvious question: Is it illegal? Whatever, how can it be stopped?

Hi there - thank you very much for reading. No it is not illegal and under the rules that Congress has imposed for themselves it's permitted.  The wording for the conflict of interest rules  is a little different in the House and Senate, but in the most simplistic terms if the lawmaker's action (in this case earmark) does not benefit only him  or a limited class of people associated with him, it's allowed.  Ethics watchdogs contend that under that read of the law, a member would have to use his or her position to secure funds to remodel their kitchen.

Scott, I asked this in the comments yesterday. You're implying malfeasance in every case without demonstrating it exists in every case. Shouldn't you be differentiating in some fashion? Isn't it disingenuous to lump every earmark (which is the legal way of distributing this money, like it or not) as evidence of sleaze where none may exist? I mean earmarks may be a terrible system, but it happens to be the legal way congress does it. Don't hate the player, hate the game.

You make a good point. What we portrayed was a range of behavior that highlights a spectrum of earmarks and other spending. Some cases are more interesting than others, and all the lawmakers operated within the law, but the cases take together  underscore a larger problem of a lack of disclosure and transparency on Capitol Hill. 

What type of earmarks were made the most? Is it money for something that can help develop the community as a whole, like new roads and infrastructure? Or something else, which would only benefit the members of Congress and their private companies? What did you see of the most?

The vast majority of the earmarks we wrote about in the first day of the series pertained to road and transportation improvements.  We found in most cases that local or state officials expressed support for the projects at some level. I don't think we found any earmarks that benefitted ONLY the member in question - if we did, that would have been a violation of the ethics rules, and like I mentioned, all of these were permitted under the rules. The key is that all of this is undisclosed - there is no mechanism by which they have to make clear that they have property nearby or a family member affiliated with an institution or agency to which they are sending that earmark.

Can you tell us if any of the congressional members profiled in this series are members of the fiscally conservative Tea Party?

The tea party freshmen took office after the moratorium went into plat, but Senator McCaskill did a study that found some freshmen did try to slip targeted spending measures into a House defense bill last year. 

So what's wrong wtih earmarks? Basically, allocation decisions about spending will be made either by elected representatives in Congress or by appointed bureaucrats. An "earmark" is a case in which the elected representatives have made a specific spending decision. Why is it automatically assumed that having bureaucrats make these decisions is good and having elected representatives make these decisions is bad?

Thank you for the question. We did not label an earmark as "good" or "bad." The stories point out flaws in the financial disclosure system. It should be very easy for voters to determine whether an earmark is by a lawmakers' property or if an earmark went to an organization where a relative works. It is not. 

Who made most off the earmarks?

We didn't rank the earmarks by lawmaker, but there are organizations that have done that in the past. Take a look at the Web sites for Taxpayers for Common Sense, two great watchdog organizations in Washington.

It's apparent from the comments section of your story that a majority of the people are assuming that every single earmark is evidence of corruption. Doesn't your story have an obligation to inform the readers of the difference between a routine earmark and actual corruption? Are you concerned you may have been misleading?

I don't feel we were misleading in the slightest -- we took great care to point out that proximity to a property does not mean an earmark is unwarranted and we explained the rationale given for the earmarks that we wrote about. I think it is up to the readers to decide if the money is well spent or not.  More broadly, the point of the story was not to suggest that earmarks = corruption; it was to shine a light on the lack of transparency in the process and the permissive culture under current ethics rules. All of this is permitted under the way the rules are written now and there is no way to know if an earmark might align with the interest of a lawmaker because there is no rule that requires them to disclose that.

Rather than work for the system, don't most legislators try to get the system to work for themselves? Isn't that why the system is not only losing beginning to lose steam, but also starting to derail itself?

That might be. I think most government watchdog types would argue that the current campaign finance system has derailed Washington's political system. The lack of transparency on Capitol Hill, which allows these types of connections to go largely undisclosed without enormous investigative effort, also does not help to instill confidence in the system.

Was there anything you learned from the investigation that really surprised you?  Or did the investigation of earmarks confirm any suspecions?

When we began the process of reviewing financial disclosure forms and other records, we had no idea where our review would take us. So yes, I was suprised to find cases in which a lawmaker was earmarking funds to projects next to their properties. Once we found some of those cases, we decided to look further, largely because it is a practice that is hidden by the current rules on disclosure.

First, excellent piece of journalism. Second, Congress reflects the people who vote them into office, it is that simple. If I get my piece of the pie my congressman Senator is going his/her job and I will donate money to their campaign to get re-elected. If I don't get my piece they are producing pork and need to be voted out. Do you ever see that dynamic changing?

Thanks so much for your kind words. We're always surprisedby what we find in the course of our investigations. In this case, we were surprised by how difficult it was to uncover these connections because the disclosure system is so fundamentally flawed. You make a good point, and it's a dynamic in local politics that goes back to the days of Tammany Hall. What could change is complete transparency about these types of directed spending measures, requiring members of Congress to disclosure all of their personal residences and commercial properties, along with details of the employment of their family members, and letting the public know if they have personal or commercial property with a certain radius of their earmarked project. 

I want my members of Congress to do this for my district and state. And if it hurts other states, then too bad. You boys need to get off your high horse and enter the real world. If the Washington Post believes that earmarks and the like are wrong, then the publisher, owner and other senior staff shouldn't have a box at the Redskin games. But that will never happen.

I understand that sentiment -- many jurisdictions and constituents would love to be represented by a member with the clout and power to secure large amounts of funding for their districts. Again, the point of the project is not to suggest that earmarks in and of themselves are bad.  The point is the complete lack of transparancy about the alignment of interest. In none of the cases we looked did the member openly disclose (in press releases or their requests for the funding) that he or she had property in proximity of the earmark they secured. 

Thanks for the series. What about this business of members steering earmarks to institutions their relatives work for? In Fort Worth, where Rep. Granger has steered $500 million toward the almost $1 billion Trinity River Vision Project (where her son is the executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority which is implementing the project), there is largely no accountability to the public for the work her son does. His "board" is appointed, not elected and they are all loath to offend him or the representative on her pet project. Shouldn't there be some kind of disclosure about the work people are doing on these projects funded by their Congressional relatives? Shouldn't there be some kind of required accountability on their part to the voters?

As you likely saw, Rep. Granger and the Trinity River project was mentioned in the series. The Star-Telegram has done some reporting on this very issue that you raise, but there is  no official mechanism by which that family link you refered to gets disclosed. And, of course it is permitted under the current conflict of interest laws.  Congressional watchdogs that I've spoken with share your point that members themsevles should have to explicitly disclose these relationships at the time they are seeking the funds.  The current financial disclosure system, with it's annual reporting cycle and lack of detail, obscures these ties.  And, the average voter doesn't have the time, resources or motivation to identify them.

I thought that when Obama took office he was putting a stop to earmarks or at least trimming down because it was clear they were all self serving. What happened? Has there been a decrease since Obama took office? Can Congress be stopped, they are turning into the corporate gangsters that fund their campaigns? No longer serving the American People. How can the American people set term limits on public office?

By definition, earmarks subvert the presidential budget process, and it's one of the reasons why the White House Office of Management and Budget created a Web site, so the public can take a look at these spending measures. Presidents of both parties have long been frustrated by congressional earmarks and there has been little they can do aside from publicizing the spending measures.  It's a revealing site, and it's searchable by lawmaker and project. 

I think if you randomly threw darts at a map you'd probably see more "hits" near congressional private property holdings than seen on your map. It's not really alarming to me.

Fair enough.  Until 2008, earmarks could not be traced to an individual lawmaker unless they took credit for it (like in a press release or news story).  Because of this, the crux of our reporting focused on earmarks from those years and everything before that is largely dark in terms of who got what earmark. It's impossible to know what the results would be if we had, for example, a full 10 years of earmarks that we could trace to individual lawmakers.

I think you had an intertesting idea for an article series, but you really need some sort of analysis to support your contention. Are the projects receiving federal money near congress person's homes out of the ordinary? As in, is there an abnormally higher expenditure of federal revenue closer to their homes than the homes of other people in their districts?

The same holds true for today's article -- is there a disproportionate amount of money going to these family-tied organizations than the other organizations that receive federal money?

You raise a good point, but it's an impossible question to answer because of the lack of transparency about this kind of spending. The only way we were able to  determine whether spending was near a lawmakers 'property was by conducting background checks on every single member of Congress. We feel as through we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg here, and we welcome tips from the public on projects and spending we might have missed. Send us an email if you have information: highams@washpost.com.

Curious as to why you didn't really talk about the entire amount of funding provided to Puget Sound every year from EPA--it is much more than what's highlighted in your article.

The argument for why these funds were not earmarks was that they went to the EPA and then organizations competed for the funds. We focused on the funds that were given to the Puget Sound Partnership in which there were no other competitors.  Those represent what earmark experts call "an earmark by another name."

Do the voters care? Not as long as their members of Congress are bringing home the bacon and the jobs. Nice to see both sides of the aisle got mentioned in your articles. Someone really needs to investigate Pelosi and bring her up before the Ethics committee.

Many lawmakers, in interviews, said that it is their elected duty to secure funding for their Districts, and if they didn't, they were not doing their job. I understand that argument. And, I do think that helps generate goodwill on the home front. We paid zero attention to party affiliation as we worked our way through earmarks and the financial disclosure forms for members of theHouse and Senate. In the final tally, the cases we focused on happened to involve 25 Democrats and 23 Republicans.

 

I thought your depiction of Nancy Pelosi's lightrail earmark was entirely unfair. Her husband owns a building within a mile of a rail network that cuts across downtown San Francisco. The rail project similarly affects pretty much every property owner in downtown San Francisco, and will not increase the value of Pelosi's property. The project has been community driven, and has broad support. It seems like you were going out of your way to include it as a way to 'balance' your list. Based on your igorance of the SF lightrail project, how can I can rely on your description of the other projects mentioned in your story?

One of the main points of this project was to show the lack of transparency with earmarks.  Pelosi, like other members, did not have to disclose that she had property that could be impacted. There are no rules that require this. Business leaders and community leaders near Union Square (and this building is near this part of town) lobbied for the rail. Their argument was that it would improve access to their businesses. In other words, they would receive a benefit. There is a broad public benefit with this project, but the property is a part of this community that will receive the benefit.

I find this interesting because of the insane objection Americans seem to have to paying higher taxes specifically on road- and infrastructure-related prices, which go specifically to general road and transportation improvements. These earmarks wouldn't be necessary if we all recognized the cost-benefit ratio of transportation-related taxes.

You make a good point.

Thanks for this great work on this and please keep it up. Although, I noticed an inaccurate comment by Craig Holman of Public Citizen saying "The executive branch has far stricter ethics standards than Congress does..." and also "The executive branch can't steer contracts or work to businesses where family members work." It would be very interested in seeing an investigative piece detailing the OMB budget passbacks to agencies. These documents have 'executive privilege' so are not made public, yet this is where the Administrations, current and past, have inserted their political favors.

If you have more specific information about this, please pass it along. highams@washpost.com.

Are all earmarks attached as riders to larger Bills or are they allowed as separate, singular appropriations?

Earmarks are typically inserted into appropriations bills, which annually set federal spending priorities. I know of no single earmark that has passed on its own outside this process.

If anyone has any tips or leads or information that we should pursue, please do not hesitate to email us: fallisd@washpost.com, highams@washpost.com, or kindyk@washpost.com

I'm not sure I follow your response. Members of congress live within their districts, and accordingly, some of the money they bring home will be spent near their own homes. The same goes with organizations that employ family members in the home district. I don't mean to sound obtuse, but aren't these expenditures a matter of public record already? If they are not, then that is the story, but that just cannot be the case. Otherwise, it still seems that what you did was an incomplete survey of where and how federal money is spent. I cannot imagine that it would be too hard to determine an average distance from the congress person's home to points of federal spending would be.

Lawmakers are not required to disclose the locations of their personal residences on their annual financial disclosure forms, and earmarked projects are not listed with addresses in the Congressional Record. So lining up earmarks with  property takes some doing. We sure wish it wasn't so difficult.

That's it for today folks. Thank you much for reading, and please drop us a line if you have anything we should check out. 

In This Chat
Scott Higham
Scott Higham is a member of The Post’s investigations unit. Before joining the paper in 2000, he worked for the Baltimore Sun, the Miami Herald and the Allentown Morning Call. At The Post, his assignments have included an investigation of the deaths of children who were under the supervision of the D.C. child-protection system. That project received the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

He has also examined the treatment of detainees held at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and the U.S. camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and investigated allegations of waste, fraud and abuse in government contracts. The Abu Ghraib investigation was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2005, and the series of articles on government contracting won the Investigative Reporters and Editors award for large newspapers that same year.
David Fallis
David S. Fallis is a staff writer on the Washington Post's investigations unit. His work has included a series about deplorable conditions in Virginia's assisted-living facilities, which won the Heywood Broun Award in 2004. In 2002, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Goldsmith Award for a report on shootings and in-custody deaths at the hands of police in Prince George's County. He also has investigated trouble within the District's school system, the ties between politicians and developers in Loudoun County, and improper spending by D.C. government.

Before David joined The Post in 1999, he wrote and edited for the Tulsa World, where his investigative work exposed the courts' failure to remove chronic drunken drivers from Oklahoma roads. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and lives in the D.C. area with his wife and two children.
Kimberly Kindy
Kimberly Kindy is a government accountability reporter at The Washington Post.
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