SEATTLE TIMES Reporter David Heath Answers Your Questions
DAVID HEATH, an investigative reporter at THE SEATTLE TIMES, answered viewer questions posed after the airing of a report on earmarks from EXPOSÉ: AMERICA'S INVESTIGATIVE REPORTS on the JOURNAL. Also, check out the Producer's note from EXPOSÉ producer Marc Shaffer.
Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Mr. Heath are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.
Did you find anyone, in or out of Congress, who might possibly be willing to make tracking down these earmarks any easier?
How long did it take you, and then you and your two interns, to input all of this database?
Posted by: Bill Wilt | February 24, 2008 07:13 PM
There are some terrific nonprofit organizations tracking down earmarks. One is Taxpayers for Common Sense at www.taxpayer.net. They just posted data on all fiscal 2008 earmarks. There’s also the Sunlight Foundation, which with TCS, has a wiki version of the database at http://earmarkwatch.org/
I wanted more detail about each earmark than their data provided. And I wanted to look at the relationship of earmarks to campaign donations and lobbying efforts. That additional information was key to the questions I had.
As far as I know, the SEATTLE TIMES is the only organization so far that’s pulled all that information together at www.seattletimes.com/favorfactory. But I suspect that my newspaper and others will be linking earmarks to campaign donors and lobbying efforts in the future.
I talked to several members of Congress for help. Even lawmakers, such as Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, can’t get information about earmarks. See for yourself: http://youtube.com/watch?v=OKb9bhXUpb4&feature=related
It took months. The interns worked for about four months and even came back later to offer more help. They not only input earmarks from the conference report, but they also pulled all the information from Congressional press releases and all the lobbying data. I spent an enormous amount of time tracking down press releases, finding each and every company named in them and then linking campaign donations from anyone affiliated with them. As Chanel Merritt mentioned in the show, it was tedious.
Why are earmarks, as your program states, "perfectly legal"?
Posted by: Michael J Ahles | February 21, 2008 10:52 AM
I’m not a lawyer, but I understand that as long as a lawmaker doesn’t demand money in exchange for a favor, it’s legal. When I asked members of Congress about campaign donors getting earmarks, they all have the same response: Absolutely no “quid pro quo.”
Our analysis shows that 80 percent of those getting defense earmarks gave campaign donations. And Winslow Wheeler, a former Congressional aide, says that there’s an unspoken understanding that giving money helps you get earmarks.
So I think it’s fair to ask whether the rules should be tougher.
The work that you did is the responsibility of the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Why didn't they produce your database before you did?
Posted by: Paul | February 22, 2008 10:08 PM
The Congressional Research Service has done some impressive analysis of earmarks, showing their explosive growth. In 2005, the CRS found 16,000 earmarks in appropriations bills, costing taxpayers more than $50 billion
I’m frankly not as familiar with work the GAO has done on this. GAO is a highly respectable organization, but it is the investigative arm of Congress. I’m not sure if Congress wants to investigate itself.
Do individual legislators have the ability and expertise to properly research and vet these things they authorize? I don't for a minute believe that Sen. Murray would know the first thing about what she is authorizing except for the dollar figure associated with the bonanza for her campaign contributors. What do you think of her use of the term "1000 percent". It exposes her lack of sophistication regarding scientific matters. In the end she is a victim as all of us are of the system of political funneling that the government has become. Sarah Chayes could just have easily been describing our country....
Posted by: Richard Watterson | February 22, 2008 11:27 PM
Based on my own efforts to investigate just a few earmarks, I can tell you that it’s not at all easy. One of the reasons I looked at boats, T-shirts and computer monitors is I could at least understand them. Many earmarks are for highly technical research. You can see for yourself in our database.
Senator Patty Murray says she gets hundreds of requests each year. In the 2008 defense bill alone, she has at least 28 earmarks. I think it’s fair to ask if any person, let alone a busy lawmaker, could devote the time necessary to assure that this money is being well spent. Experts probably find it challenging to pick among competing technologies. How can we expect a Senator to be able to do this? Also, do we really want members of Congress spending three or four months every year micromanaging defense contracts? Is that what we elected them to do?
If it is true that these earmarks are already funded from the approved budgets of the specific departments, doesn't the fact that earmarks for items not needed, not wanted, or for items that just don't work use up or lessen the funding for the initial approved request, resulting, then, in not enough money for what was originally intended to be purchased?
Posted by: bobsr | February 24, 2008 01:13 PM
Yes. The defense budget is capped by law. In essence, every dollar spent on an earmark forces the military to cut money from a program they wanted.
Editorial note: Several viewers wondered if the new rules put in place in Congress last year will make any difference in the practice of earmarking.
The new rules, adopted last year, require Senators and Representatives to put their names on their earmarks. The House requires members to disclose the recipient of each earmark, while the Senate does not.
These are improvements. But it remains extraordinarily difficult for anyone to compile a list of earmarks, figure out who gets them and evaluate whether they are worthwhile.
While finding the names of Congressional sponsors is easier, it’s still not simple. And you can’t find the names of companies getting the earmarks on any official Web site. Instead, you have to walk into the office of the House appropriations committee and ask for thick books of letters from House members. The Senate won’t give you this information at all.
Congress is leaving it up to us to compile all this information and it still takes an enormous amount of time and energy.
Could earmarks be considered an inexpensive alternative to the appropriations process? I mean how stupid would it be for our government to spend a million dollars in order to appropriate another million? Secondly, as long as a president has something similar to a line item veto and as long as he vetos all funding except that which benefits his approved legislation doesn't an earmark provide a 'balance of power' for Congress? For sure any process like this that could so easily be misused should have total transparency. So, how about each member of Congress maintain a list of their earmarks on their Web pages with an explanation of why that funding was approved?
Posted by: Andy | February 23, 2008 03:46 PM
Earmarks have become part of the appropriations process, but I’m not sure it’s inexpensive. We found that defense contractors in 2006 alone spent $160 million lobbying for their earmarks. Staffers on Capitol Hill told me that sorting through earmarks consumes most of their time from January to March each year.
The president doesn’t have a line-item veto. He could instruct agencies to ignore earmarks that are in the bill – something he threatened to do in his State of the Union address if Congress doesn’t pull in the reins. But previous efforts by the Office of Management and Budget to ignore earmarks met the wrath of Congress. It’s difficult to go to dismiss the people who sign your checks.
Your suggestion about having to justify each earmark is a good one. Of course, there were justifications in press releases for the boats, T-shirts and computer displays. Yet those products were all failures.
Earmarks can be a good thing when used properly. They are a great way to fund small projects which couldn't hope to receive federal funding otherwise. However, as your report clearly shows, they are often used as a method of rewarding ones political supporters. We need to clean up the system, but how?
Posted by: Matthew Tobias | February 22, 2008 09:37 PM
As the cliché goes, a broken clock is right twice a day. The problem here is a broken system. For the most part, earmarks are going to campaign donors. As Rep. Jeff Flake points out, that gives the appearance that members of Congress may be using earmarks to raise money to get re-elected.
If there’s a real problem that earmarks are meant to address – and I’m not sure there is – then maybe Congress should fix the problem so earmarks won’t be needed.
Bringing back Federal spending into the district is "Job 1" for a congressman. I lived in Tom Lantos' district in San Mateo, CA 10 years ago. Right before an election he would publish a newsletter detailing all of the Federal money coming into the district (thanks to him? not!) The table of Federal taxes coming out of the district was not available even when I called his office. A congressman not bringing spending into the district is not doing his job and will lose the next election, Ron Paul excepted?
Posted by: Roger Barker | February 23, 2008 01:11 PM
As Bill Moyers mentioned in the program, 13 members of Congress did not seek an earmark this year. One of them is John McCain. He seems to be doing all right. [Ed. note: There are 13 members of Congress (8 house, 5 Senate) who served the full 1st session of the 110th Congress and did not earmark. Boehner (R-OH), Cantor (R-VA), Flake (R-AZ), Fossella (R-NY), Hensarling (R-TX), Kline (R-MN), Shadegg (R-AZ), Terry (R-NE), Coburn (R-OK), DeMint (R-SC), Feingold (D-WI), McCain (R-AZ), McCaskill (D-MO). Find out more about the candidates and earmarks throughout their careers.]
With the increase in the number of earmarks from Congress, maybe someone should evaluate “why” there has been an increase instead of just labeling them as “bad.”
The total amount of money “earmarked” for particular uses is a very small percentage of the overall federal spending each year – one percent or less. To equate earmarking of federal dollars to out-of-control spending is not factually supported, and even if you wiped out every single earmark (begging the question of what an “earmark” really is) the financial impact upon the country would likely be unfelt. If you doubt this, take a look at the FY2007 continuing resolution, which knocked out most earmarks. Did anyone really notice?
The earmarks scrutinized by “Taxpayers For Common Sense,” the Sunshine Foundation, and others are all contained in appropriation spending bills. They do not impact the total amount of funds spent, just where and how they are spent. Think of it this way – during the budgeting process, Congress decides how big a pie to make. They decide how much of an ingredient to put in the pie (tax revenue) and when they finally pass a budget, it’s like putting it in the oven to bake. But once the pie is removed from the oven, they have to decide how to cut the pie and to whom it should be served. That’s the appropriation process. Earmarking a piece of the pie in no way impacts the size of a pie already baked.
Earmarking is part of a constitutionally directed responsibility of the Congress; it decides where money should be spent. Isn’t it ironic that no one complains about the President, Vice President, or executive agencies earmarking federal dollars? Do we really feel so much more comfortable with bureaucrats who do not stand for election, or in the case of the president and vice-president, do so a maximum of two elections in eight years, having the sole ability to decide where money should be spent? Or would we rather have 435 elected congressmen having to answer for their decisions every two years, and another 100 senators every six years?
So why do earmarks appear more popular?
The bureaucratic process of utilizing federal resources is daunting. The cost of applying for funding and the costs that are required to be incurred without any indication of the likelihood of success requires communities and other potentially worthy applicants to undertake significant financial risk. Those persons, organizations, and communities most in need and often the most worthy, are also often the least able to afford the costs and risks the system has come to mean. When that happens, who could blame a potential applicant from turning to the person or persons elected to helping them in our government?
Recipients of earmarked appropriations do not get a free pass. The applicant is still required to meet program requirements and fit the legally mandated criteria. The difference however, is that with an earmark designation in an appropriation bill, the applicant knows that its up front costs – planning, engineering, consulting, etc. – will be utilized and that the cost will not be wasted. In short, the earmark lowers the risk of wasting time and resources to obtain the requested funding. Lowering that risk gives smaller and less affluent communities and non-profit organizations the ability to invest their limited resources more intelligently.
Congressional representatives can serve as a single point of contact for a constituent’s needs. The federal government – rightly or wrongly – is huge, complex, and complicated. There are many agencies and programs, often with overlapping jurisdictions and authority. Unless one is knowledgeable about a particular program or resource, it is often difficult to know where to start. Congressional staffs help serve as a clearing house of resources for communities seeking help. For example, the community seeking help to revitalize its town, develop small business, and create new jobs, might find it interesting that the Department of Transportation, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Department of Commerce all may have programs to help -- but where to start? Congressional offices can serve as that starting place.
More, not less, congressional involvement is needed to address the country’s overall spending habits. Removing congress from the spending process also removes them further from accountability to each of us, the voters. Alternatively, expecting members of congress to be more involved with the real consequences of their spending decisions puts some context on the votes for large number spending bills that may or may not mean anything to their own districts.
A word about transparency. Taxpayers For Common Sense, the Sunlight Foundation, and other media sources focused upon congressional spending should be applauded for helping to shine light on how our tax dollars are spent. Indeed, one day perhaps Congress itself will make review of their spending decisions more easily done. Until that day, however, the media continues to play an important, and at times singular, role as congressional watchdog. Faith in the public’s ability to form its own conclusions about each transaction, assuming it has adequate information about the transaction, is made easier with greater transparency with the earmark process. To pass judgment on the process itself, because of its misuse by some, however, is to declare the media efforts to improve that transparency a failure.
Posted by: Angela | February 24, 2008 05:46 AM
This post presents the typical arguments you hear when you talk to members of Congress, lobbyists and companies that support earmarking. I’ll try to address a few of her points:
1.) Earmarks don’t cost much.
By one estimate, we’ll spend at least $18 billion on earmarks this year. The average amount of federal income tax we pay annually is $8,000 per return. So it will take all the income taxes paid by more than 2 million households just to pay for earmarks this year.
2.) We don’t spend a penny extra on earmarks, because that money would have been spent anyway.
Congress job historically has been to be a watchdog on spending, as Angela points out. But when it comes to earmarking, Congress plays the role of advocate. That gives lawmakers an incentive to expand budgets, giving them room to pay for earmarks.
What’s to prevent Congress from cutting an additional $18 billion from the budget this year? Answer: Earmarks.
3.) The president earmarks too.
Yes, and Congress can cut all of the president’s earmarks out of the spending bills.
4.) It’s hard to get a government contract. It costs money and there’s no guarantee of success.
If the contracting system prevents critical purchases from being made, Congress can look into the reasons for those problems and fix them. Earmarks to companies, however, are no-bid contracts, usually given to campaign donors. That doesn’t inspire confidence that these purchases have been properly scrutinized.
5.) To pass judgment on the process itself, because of its misuse by some, however, is to declare the media efforts to improve that transparency a failure.
Transparency is minimal. Even with the name of the recipient, the effort required to evaluate whether an earmark is worthwhile is daunting. So unfortunately, our database tells only a small piece of the story.
Isn't there a way to challenge these “earmarks” from a constitutional position. The Constitution reads: "to promote the general welfare". It would seem to me that the special interest politics of Washington are unconstitutional. Since the corruption of our government is so widespread that it is impossible to get government officials to make changes (which are unfavorable to their self-interest), how could we get the Supreme Court to rule that these appropriations are unconstitutional?
Posted by: Curtis Davis | February 23, 2008 03:46 PM
There is a legal argument some present. Since earmarks aren’t written into the law itself, they’re not binding on the agencies. As far as I know, this has never been tested in court. But it’s what President Bush is threatening to do if Congress doesn’t cut the number of earmarks.
Why can't we as American voters unite to pass a constitutional amendment to remove earmarks from this sneaky process of legislation? Each item should stand on its own merit and vote. Then each dollar could be accounted for and we could get to a balance budget.
Posted by: Bonnie | February 23, 2008 01:29 AM
We could pass a constitutional amendment. But it would seem that all it would take is a good law. Some have mentioned public financing as a way to reduce the influence of monied interests. I’m not an expert on that issue.
Congress could outlaw giving earmarks to campaign donors. They could also outlaw earmarks that benefit family members.
Citizens Against Government Waste are calling on members of Congress to take the following pledge:
FIRST, fully disclose all earmarked funding or targeted tax benefit requests (or substitute letters to agencies) on my Congressional website.
SECOND, not request any earmarked funding that would come from a federal program that is not currently authorized by Congress.
THIRD, not request any earmarked funding or targeted tax benefit provision that does not serve a federal interest and/or have a federal nexus.
FOURTH, not request any earmarked funding or targeted tax benefit provision for an entity located outside of the state I represent.
FIFTH, not request any earmarked funding or targeted tax benefit provision that would be directed toward a specific private entity that was not requested by an agency.
SIXTH, not request any earmarked funding be added or increased in a conference
committee to an amount greater than the amount passed in either the House or the Senate version of the bill.
SEVENTH, not request any earmarked funding or targeted tax benefit provision without also requesting that the provision be included within the text of the bill.
EIGHTH, support legislation that would end the linkage between campaign contributions and earmarks.
NINTH, support legislation that requires any earmarked funding or targeted tax benefit provision be put in the text of the bill, be available for discussion at an open Congressional hearing, and be disclosed with the requesting Senator(s), amounts, recipients, and purpose at least one week before the bill is brought to the floor.
TENTH, support any amendment in Committee, or on the Floor of the Senate, that eliminates an earmarked funding or targeted tax benefit provision that does not comply with this pledge.
I just listened to Bill Moyers Report on earmarks. I think it was well done and definitely needed. In it he quoted the president about his plan to veto any bill that didn't cut the earmarks in half. He went on to say that he had packed in thousands of his own earmarks. Is it really true that the president can change a congressional appropriations bill? It was my understanding that he doesn't have that power. The appropriations bill may have already contained some earmarked funds or projects that he agreed with or supported and had gone through the Congressional approval process but I don't think that he can just add them himself. Am I wrong on this or has the law changed?
Posted by: Dick Downing | February 23, 2008 01:49 PM
The President submits a budget to Congress in the form of appropriations bills. Those budgets can contain proposed expenses that look like earmarks. The administration adds these before the bill reaches Congress.
Have news bureaus been reduced to the point that Mr Heath was SURPRISED to find what he found? The gist of this story is not outrage at what Mr Heath found (good for him!), but outrage that no one was even LOOKING before now.
Posted by: Chris Boese | February 23, 2008 05:17 PM
Reporters have been looking at earmarks. I’m sure you’ve heard about the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” a $220 million bridge to an island of 50 inhabitants in Alaska. But digging into a story like this takes a lot of time. Unfortunately, that’s something we have less and less of in my business these days.