JIM LEHRER: Next, those things Congress uses to spend special money. They’re called earmarks. And Jeffrey Brown has our story.
JEFFREY BROWN: The massive $515 billion spending bill Congress approved this week includes more than $7 billion for so-called earmarks or targeted spending projects, nearly 10,000 of them in all that members inserted to benefit their home states and districts.
REP. JEFF FLAKE (R), Arizona: … $1.6 million for the city of Bastrop, Louisiana. According to the Bastrop Daily Enterprise, quote, “The money is officially earmarked for the purchase of bulletproof vests and body armor. Bulletproof vests only cost about $700 to $800, however, so $1.6 million would appear to be overkill.”
Police chief Curtis Stephenson agrees, conceding, “There’s no way we need that kind of money just to put all our people in vests.”
JEFFREY BROWN: Some members, House Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona among them, rail against earmarks, claiming they’re slipped into spending bills under the cover of darkness. Others, however, trumpet their ability to bring home the bacon.
When Democrats took control of Congress last January, they promised greater transparency of the earmark process. And this week, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin reported progress.
SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: The total dollar amount of the earmarks contained in those appropriations equals 43 percent of the earmarks contained in the Republican appropriations bills of two years ago, a 57 percent reduction in the dollar value of earmarks, total transparency, total disclosure.
JEFFREY BROWN: Not good enough, said the president today.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Together with the previously passed defense spending bill, that means Congress has approved about 11,900 earmarks this year. And so I’m instructing Budget Director Jim Nussle to review options for dealing with the wasteful spending in the omnibus bill.
JEFFREY BROWN: But according to one watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, the White House plays the earmark game, too. It claims the administration managed to insert more than 1,600 earmarks into the spending bill.
JEFFREY BROWN: And a representative of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense joins us now. Steve Ellis is the group's vice president.
Also with us is Charles Konigsberg, president of the Washington Budget Report, a nonpartisan online newsletter that provides federal spending analysis. He's also the author of the forthcoming book "America's Priorities: An Insider Guide to U.S. Spending and Taxes."
Well, Stephen Ellis, start with an explanation, a kind of Congress 101. What exactly is an earmark? And how does one get into a spending bill?
STEVE ELLIS, Taxpayers for Common Sense: Sure. An earmark is actually just a line-item spending provision that goes to benefit a specific entity or location in a member's congressional district, in the broadest of terms.
And its origin can be multifold. Essentially, it can be a community talking to their member of Congress, requesting money for a bridge or for some other project in their community.
But it could also be a business or a lobbyist that goes to that member of Congress and requests this funding. There could be campaign contributions that are also -- that kind of get the member's attention. There's other aspects of that.
Then, that member submits a letter to the Appropriations Committee that describes the project. And then the Appropriations Committee looks at these letters -- there were 32,000 of them, according to the House committee -- and they insert these provisions into their spending bills.
And, eventually, the president signs the bill, and the money flows.
JEFFREY BROWN: Can any congressman do it, or is it primarily through this Appropriations Committee?
CHARLES KONIGSBERG, Washington Budget Report: Well, the members of the Appropriations Committee tend to get a lot more earmarks than other members of Congress, although all members of Congress can submit requests to the Appropriations Committee. But seniority tends to determine the final amount of earmarks.
JEFFREY BROWN: And this is a bipartisan effort? I mean, this isn't one party or the other when it's at the appropriations level?
CHARLES KONIGSBERG: It's absolutely bipartisan, yes.
Project selection under scrutiny
JEFFREY BROWN: So what's the problem? What's the problem with them?
STEVE ELLIS: Well, certainly, one of the things is the decision about who gets the money is really more about political muscle than it really is about project merit. So you see the top dogs, the members in leadership and the senior appropriators, who are getting the most money.
I mean, if you look at in the House, you had three lawmakers -- Representative Murtha from Pennsylvania, Representative Lewis from California, and Representative Young from Florida -- one Democrat, two Republicans, they got more than $150 million each for their congressional district.
That's more than any other lawmaker by far. We didn't find anybody that went over $100 million. And right there, those represent the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, the ranking member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and the ranking member of the full Appropriations Committee.
So a lot of the problem is, is that we're not picking the best projects; the projects and the funding is going to those who are the most powerful.
JEFFREY BROWN: What's the argument for them, if there is one? I mean, isn't part of what a congressman is supposed to do, precisely to get funding for projects for his or her local voters?
CHARLES KONIGSBERG: Well, earmarks are really endemic to our system. The Congress is given the constitutional authority to appropriate money, so it really is inherent in the system that we have that Congress is going to try to target money at various projects within those states and districts and that members of greater seniority are likely to be more successful at doing this.
Having said that, there's also a strong argument that, for the national interest, we should have impartial officials at the agencies looking at the various earmarks and determining which are the highest priorities nationally.
JEFFREY BROWN: Are there examples, though, of worthy earmarks? I just want to get a sense of, in the wide range -- we're talking about thousands of them just in this bill -- if you look at it, how many would you say are of the kind of egregious type? And how many fall into what people might think of as, "Well, it's a worthy project"?
CHARLES KONIGSBERG: It's hard at this point, with the bill having just been passed, to give a breakdown, but historically there have been some very worthwhile earmarks.
For example, the Human Genome Research Project, which mapped the human genome, was started by an earmark by Senator Domenici. The Children's National Medical Center here in Washington also was established through an earmark.
So there are a lot of examples where earmarks have established important projects and activities. And when you look around the country, there are a great deal of earmarks in the area of highways, and fixing bridges, and water projects, and a whole variety of projects, which are really quite legitimate.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you buy that? Where do you draw the line between appropriate constituent service and crossing a line to unnecessary and wasteful spending?
STEVE ELLIS: Well, it's really hard to draw that line, as a matter of fact. I mean, it's unclear whether the best road projects happen to be in the most powerful lawmakers' districts or whether that just happens to be happenstance.
And so you can certainly point to earmarks that seem to be worthwhile, but you can't tell me or anybody can't tell me that they're the most worthwhile, they're the most important, because there is no vetting process, there is no real competitive award process that goes on there.
And so kind of interestingly, one of -- something that was an earmark that got funded that we think is interesting. There was one that Congressman Wolf from Northern Virginia got that looked at foreign aid spending to see how effective our foreign aid spending was.
And it found that earmarks are undercutting the effectiveness of our foreign aid spending. So you had an earmark finding that earmarks are causing problems.
Earmark policy reform
JEFFREY BROWN: We referred in our set-up to some reforms that were passed this past year because of these kinds of issues. What impact have they had, in terms of making them more transparent or even having less of them?
CHARLES KONIGSBERG: A substantial impact. I think that's really the headline here: The total number of earmarks have gone way down. It depends who you talk to. They've either gone down 25 percent or 40 percent, but they're headed down.
And that's because of the transparency required by the new rules. The House back in January and the Senate this past September, as part of the lobbying reform bill, passed requirements that really require a great deal of transparency now.
JEFFREY BROWN: Which means what exactly?
CHARLES KONIGSBERG: Which means that, if you were to look at that big stack of paper that we saw in the set-up piece, about four inches of that were actually lists of all of the earmarks, with the sponsor, the project, and the amount of money. And that's a...
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, so you know who did it? You have a name attached to each project, and that's new?
CHARLES KONIGSBERG: That's completely new, and so we're headed in the right direction. And that's really the headline here, I think, of what's transpired.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think it's effective enough or do you...
STEVE ELLIS: Well, I think we've got a ways to go. I mean, what we saw was, over the last decade-plus, the number of earmarks exploded.
When the Republicans first took control of Congress, their first year in the budget, '96, there were 3,000 earmarks. In 10 year's time, in fiscal year 2005, there were more than 15,000 earmarks. So it took us 200 years to get to about 3,000 earmarks, and then in a decade's time we quintupled that number.
And so what we've seen is a 25 percent reduction, a reduction in the number in the dollar amount, but 25 percent less of a lot is still a lot. And so we still have a ways to go, and this needs to continue for the out coming years.
JEFFREY BROWN: We showed the president in the set-up saying that he was going to ask the budget director to do something about what he thought of as wasteful spending, and he meant the earmarks. I saw you both kind of look at each other at that moment. Are there things that the budget director, that the White House can actually to?
CHARLES KONIGSBERG: Absolutely. Back in the '80s, when I was working at the Senate Budget Committee, Jim Miller, who was then the OMB director, actually announced that -- well, let me back up for a minute.
Most of the earmarks are actually not in the legislative language. They're in what's called the report language, which is the committees' statements explaining the various bills and the provisions. Most of the earmarks are actually in the report language; they're not in the law itself.
Now, historically, the administration has always adhered very studiously to what is in the committee report, because they know that Congress can always just shift the earmarks into the legislative language.
Jim Miller, back in the 1980s as OMB director, said, "Well, the reports are not actually binding, so we're just going to decide which ones we want to implement and which we don't want to." Well, that caused quite an uproar on the Hill, and he backed down.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you're into a kind of arcane, a little bit of a shell game, in terms of where the money is put. But you're suggesting that there are things the president or the administration can do?
STEVE ELLIS: Well, yes. I think that, once you get into the agency level, they do have some deference. It just depends on how much they want to exercise, because, remember, the people who are writing their checks that fund their agency budget every year, our Congress, they're going to be writing their budget next year, so you've got to be careful about biting the hand that feeds you.
JEFFREY BROWN: And we cited your report which suggested the White House gets involved in this, as well, in terms of earmarks.
STEVE ELLIS: Yes, absolutely. I mean, there are many earmarks that are in the underlying presidential budget that get submitted to Congress. So, I mean, the game is played on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Stephen Ellis and Charles Konigsberg, thank you both very much.
STEVE ELLIS: Thank you.