BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.
Take a listen, if you would, to some new language that gives you an idea of how far things have gone in Washington...sneaky budget items, that one headline writer called, 'Marks for Sharks.'
"Marks" for earmarks. That's money awarded to special interest projects via our bloated budgeting process. Now 'sharks' refers to the worst of the lobbyists trolling on behalf of those special interests.
The recent case of Jack Abramoff, who turned out to be one hungry shark, has shined a bright light on the practice. Now some lawmakers from both parties are now saying the time has come to fix this mess. Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and Producer Brenda Breslauer have our story.
MARIA HINOJOSA: This week Congress has been talking a lot about cleaning up its act. After months of negative headlines, from the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal to the fundraising indictment of House Leader Tom DeLay to the resignation of Congressman Duke Cunningham, Washington is now abuzz with more than a dozen proposals calling for ethics reform.
BARAK OBAMA: This is a time for Washington to get to work and clean up its act.
LINDSEY GRAHAM: What I hope is that we'll stop reading about projects that make us embarrassed when we're at home.
MARIA HINOJOSA: One target: an issue that has flown mostly under the radar until now…the explosion of something known as earmarks.
SENATOR COBURN: As you can see from the charts, the amount spending that's been earmarked has been steadily rising…
REP. JEFF FLAKE: Earmarks have become the currency of corruption.
MARIA HINOJOSA: We talked to insiders who showed us how earmarks those little bits of language with the power to move millions of dollars to a politician's pet projects are a breeding ground for abuse. They can be inserted into spending bills at any point in the process, often without any debate, review or oversight. Most of you know them as pork.
SENATOR MCCAIN: I'd like to put these guys out of business. They do a great job, I'd love to put them out of business.
Senator McCain is holding what's known as The Pig Book. It's published each year by the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste which has a field day tracking what they say are the most egregious pork-barrel projects in the federal budget. Like a two million dollar earmark for a Navy study exploring the use of "no flush" urinals, $600,000 dollars for a horse trail in Virginia, $70,000 dollars for the Paper Industry Hall of Fame. And 1.4 million dollars for a dog kennel at an Alaska Air force base.
REP. JIM COOPER: You will soon find out as a freshman Congressman, that if you play your cards right, you probably have about $50 million every two years that you can hand out in one way or another in 'pork barrel' projects.
MARIA HINOJOSA: $50 million just because I was elected?
REP. JIM COOPER: Yes. Individual Congressional offices have become very similar to ATM machines. Where, if you know the code, you can get money out of it.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Congressman Jim Cooper, a fiscally conservative Democrat from Tennessee, is one of those voices for earmark reform. Topping his "best of pork list"? An indoor rainforest in Iowa a $50 million dollar earmark of Republican Senator Charles Grassley.
REP. JIM Cooper: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL pointed out, it would be cheaper to fly everyone in that town to a real rainforest instead of building a fake one on the prairie.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Senator Grassley will say; Look, it-- it was gonna create jobs. It was going to bring a kind of tourism to Iowa that maybe wouldn't come otherwise.
REP. JIM COOPER: You can put lipstick on a Pig, but it's still pork. People get re-elected by bringing home the bacon. By bringing home the pork.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Republican Senator Tom Coburn has spent much of his political career bucking his own party on the issue of earmarks.
SENATOR TOM COBURN: Here's $250,000 for a museum for tea pots.
MARIA HINOJOSA: And that is based where?
SENATOR TOM COBURN: North Carolina. Tea pots. Now think about that. We're gonna take your kid's future tax dollars, and pay for a museum for tea pots.
JIM DYER: Some awfully things have been done in earmarking.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Jim Dyer, a Republican, served 24 years on the staff of the House Appropriations Committee.
Dyer says most earmarks have been a force for good.
Several years ago there was a major initiative in the Appropriations Committee aimed at breast cancer research. The body armor for troops. On two different occasions, the Appropriations Committee has added new and improved body armor for our troops in Iraq and for the vehicles that they use to get around. These are items that identify a national need and attempts to solve it.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Dyer concedes though, and most everyone agrees, that the number of earmarks has skyrocketed. In 1994, when the Republicans took over Congress there were 1,300 earmarks in appropriations bills. Last year,that number had jumped to 14,000. The total cost to taxpayers? $27 billion dollars.
Dyer was one of the players when Newt Gingrich took control of the Republican leadership and earmarking became more of a political tool.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Wasn't it true that Newt Gingrich in 1994 told the appropriations chairs to give more earmarks to Republicans in vulnerable districts in order to help them stay in office and get them reelected?
JIM DYER: Yes, that is absolutely true. And one of the-- one of the items that has probably led to a proliferation of earmarks has been the determination on the part of the leadership to protect its own.
MARIA HINOJOSA: But it hasn't always been this way. In 1987 President Ronald Reagan vetoed the highway bill saying he was offended by the amount of earmarks.
REAGAN RADIO ADDRESS (1987): Only this week, the Congress sent me the highway construction bill that was loaded with pork-barrel projects. I haven't seen so much lard since I handed out blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair.
MARIA HINOJOSA: President Bush seems to talk tough on earmarks.
PRESIDENT BUSH (STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS, 2006): I am pleased that the members of Congress are working on earmark reform, because the federal budget has too many special interest projects.
MARIA HINOJOSA: But Congressman Cooper says Bush's inaction speaks louder than his words.
REP. COOPER: Today President Bush is the first President, really since John Quincy Adams at the founding of the Republic, never to have vetoed a bill. So there's no adult supervision in Congress. And that encourages this organized appetite for special interests around the country to grab as much taxpayer money as they can while they can.
Are you saying that if the President started saying I'm gonna veto these bills, I want to know exactly what's going in with all these earmarks that this might stop?
REP. JIM COOPER: That would do a lot to clean up the process. But President Bush has not vetoed any. Because he didn't want to embarrass the Republican majority in Congress.
MARIA HINOJOSA: The highway bill that President Reagan vetoed contained only 152 earmarks. Compare that with last years' highway bill: the number of earmarks had exploded to 6371.
REP. JIM COOPER: One congressman from California got $761 million just for his congressional district in California. That's an outrage. That's three quarters of a billion dollars to one individual. And that probably helps him get reelected but that's not good for the other tax payers.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Those earmarks went to the district of Republican Congressman Bill Thomas, Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
REP. COOPER: And you have to admire his clout. And you also have to admire his brass, to be able to ask for and get that much money.
SENATOR COBURN: It's almost a kingship that you can direct and you can control. And I've never done earmarks because I think it's improper for us to direct money and control the dollars ourselves.
MARIA HINOJOSA: After three terms in the House of Representatives, Tom Coburn ran for and won his Oklahoma Senate seat on an anti-pork platform.
He had first-hand experience, he says, with the seamy side of earmarks. Back in 1998, when Senator Coburn was still in the House, Congress was writing a new highway bill. Coburn had already been told he could put up to $10 million dollars worth of earmarks into the legislation when he says his office got this call, from a Transportation Committee staffer.
AUDIO: We're upping that by $5 million. So you have $15 million, and I'm just trying to figure out where you want to put the new money.
SENATOR TOM COBURN: That voicemail was based on the fact that if you operate like it operates around here, and you can take $15 million and put your name on any highway you want to, or do any constituency you want, and spend that five-- $15 million. No accountability. No accountability. Spend it on the lowest priority project or the highest, nobody's gonna look. But you can use it. Will you vote for the Bill?
MARIA HINOJOSA: So they were, in essence saying; If you vote for the Bill-- we give you another $5 million?
SENATOR TOM COBURN: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
MARIA HINOJOSA: Without any strings attached?
SENATOR TOM COBURN: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). I didn't vote for the Bill. And Oklahoma got the money anyway. Once it-- once it was made public that they'd done it, it's pretty hard to pull that back.
MARIA HINOJOSA: But that's the level of-
SENATOR TOM COBURN: Well, that happens sometimes. That's not routine. That is not routine. But that happens sometimes when people are trying to get a Bill passed and trying to get everybody onboard.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Senator Coburn says he wants the public to understand that this kind of dealmaking corrupts the way we pass laws.
SENATOR COBURN: The earmarking process causes their elected representatives to vote for bills that they never would vote for. And the great example of that is, if I had an earmark and I get an appropriation committee put it into it, the implied, implicit-- comment-- often unstated but understood in Washington is you will vote for the bill. So I'll end up having what I want in the bill, but the bill's terrible for the long-term interests of the country. I vote for it anyhow. So we move from what is in the best long-term interests for the country to what's in my best political interests.
JIM DYER: It's a false statement. I just don't think it's true. I don't, I don't think. I think it is true that you will find congressmen who want to support legislation because there's something in it for their district. I think I call that human nature. But, to say that there are congressman who are doing it solely for that reason, I think, is a stretch.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Regardless of why they do it, it's the how, that has Jim Cooper concerned. It's not often that members of Congress reveal the wheeling and dealing that surrounds them, but Cooper took us inside the process of how earmarks get into an appropriations bill.
REP. JIM COOPER: I'll carry this card to the floor of the House of Representatives and hand it to a key person, And this is a pocket size card, they put it right in their pocket so that they can remember what Jim Cooper's requests are for the bill.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Who decides which one is gonna get in, which one is gonna get out, and when exactly is it put in to a bill that then you're gonna vote on as law?
REP. JIM COOPER: Well, it's a very powerful secretive process. And that's why the Appropriations Subcommittee Chairmen are called Cardinals like Cardinals in Rome. It's almost like the election of a new Pope, you have to wait till the smoke goes up the chimney and then you see who wins or who loses.
MARIA HINOJOSA: They call them Cardinals?
REP. JIM COOPER: Cardinals. That's a very powerful position. Also, the ranking members are very powerful. And people work for years, decades, to achieve these pinnacles of power in the Congress. And that enables them to hand out all the pork.
MARIA HINOJOSA: We wanted to talk to some of the so called Cardinals of the House and Senate who by virtue of their leadership positions and committee chairmanships ultimately control the granting of earmarks. None of them agreed to speak with us.
Last year, Senator Coburn made headlines and enemies when he launched an attack on Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere."
SENATOR COBURN: $4,460,000 per resident to build a bridge that already has a safe effective and efficient ferry service.
MARIA HINOJOSA: He proposed an amendment to shift the money from Alaska to a New Orleans bridge destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
SENATOR COBURN: Here was a bridge that really serves a small number of people, that ultimately is going to cost $1.5 billion. Should we build that bridge or repair the one over Lake Ponchartrain? Which one serves the best benefit for the country? That's the kind of debate I want us to have.
MARIA HINOJOSA: The Senate took offense. Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska threatened to resign if Coburn's amendment passed and killed the earmark for the "Bridge to Nowhere."
SENATOR TED STEPHENS: No state has gone through this….I urge my friend from Oklahoma to reconsider this, reconsider what he is getting us into. The amendment may pass, but if it does the bill will never be passed. If it does, I will be taken out of here on a stretcher.
MARIA HINOJOSA: While Coburn's amendment failed, his spotlight on the project made the bridge such an object of ridicule that ultimately, the earmark was removed. But the state of Alaska still got the same amount of money in a block grant and can now build the bridge themselves. And that's just one of the earmark's Coburn's gone after.
This isn't an amendment about this being a bad idea, I am sure this is a parking lot that is needed. We are going to take money from Housing and Urban Development and we are going to build a sculpture park. An animal shelter when we cannot even shelter the people properly in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi.
SENATOR TOM COBURN: I've offered an amendment on every earmark this year. Not because I think I'll win, but because I think the American people win when we have a debate on priorities.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Coburn doesn't care whose embarrassed by the pet projects he rips into. Like this one in the home state of Democratic Senator Patty Murray.
SENATOR COBURN: There was an earmark put in there for $500,000 to build a sculpture park in Seattle, Washington. Five hundred-- for a sculpture park. Nice idea. You know if we had plenty of money that would be a great thing to do.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Well, Murray's office would say; The sculpture park wasn't frivolous. And, in fact, it had a tremendous amount of support by the people of Seattle. And Senator Coburn, from Oklahoma, should not be meddling in what happens in Seattle.
SENATOR COBURN: I can rationalize any earmark. You know put me on the other side. I can rationalize it. I can say why it's great. But that's not the issue. We can't even pay for Medicare and yet we're gonna build all these things around the country to help us get re-elected and how are we gonna pay that back? We're gonna lower the standard of living of our children and our grandchildren.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Senator Coburn and his allies can only fight the earmarks they know about; these voices for reform complain that more and more the process has become undemocratic. Sweetheart deals are being slipped into bills at the eleventh hour, with no notice and no time to evaluate them… perverting, they say, the entire system that governs how Congress manages our tax dollars.
SENATOR COBURN: The problem with earmarks is number one, they're buried. Number two, you don't know who put them in there. Number three, you don't know exactly who they're benefiting.
REP. JIM COOPER: Under the normal rules of the House of Representatives, you get three days to read every bill. But they've waived those rules. They've tossed them out the window. So frequently, no one even expects anymore, to be able to read the legislation.
MARIA HINOJOSA: You're saying that there are times when you'll be voting on a law that you may not even have read what's included in that law. How is that possible?
REP. JIM COOPER: On countless votes in the last several years, the Republican majority has deliberately forced through legislation, so that no one had time to read it. Now they might give you a token hour or two to read a 600-page bill, but no one is able to do that. They want you to find out the 'bad stuff', the controversial stuff, when it's too late, when you can't do anything about it.
MARIA HINOJOSA: That's what happened with the Energy and Water Appropriations bill voted on in the Senate last year. It was introduced the night before the summer break and only debated for about two hours.
JOHN MCCAIN: Mr. Chairman, this system that we are under now is broken we shouldn't be on a night before we all know we are going into a recess consider a bill of this magnitude in an hour and a half at a very late hour.
MARIA HINOJOSA: It passed at 12:27 am in the dark of night.
Hidden in the final version of the 31 billion dollar bill, according to Cooper, was a line saying that everything in an accompanying report would also be made into law.
JIM COOPER: We got to vote on the 'skinny' bill that gave this fat report the force of law. That's what happened.
HINOJOSA: So is this-- is this an earmark? Is this 'pork?'
REP. JIM COOPER: Well, this is an army of earmarks. This is thousands of earmarks in this one document, that hardly anyone has ever looked at. It's never been scored to see how much it'll cost. It's never been scrubbed to see if it's clean or not. It just is a list of-- a Wish List from Santa Claus. And this now has the force of law.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Senator Coburn's staff took a close look and found that of the 199 pages in the final report, 109 of them are full of earmarks. One of the pork projects they identified is $13 million for a Mississippi museum that, among other things, will highlight the work of the Army Corps of Engineers. The money comes from the same fund Congress appropriated for levee construction.
SENATOR TOM COBURN: You know, the important thing is, should we know what's in these bills before we vote on them? I mean, that's a great question for the American public. Do you really know what you're voting on when you cast a vote? And I'd say sometimes I don't.
SCOTT LILLY: I think there is a deliberate effort to keep members in the dark. And the public in the dark.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Scott Lilly would know. Until he left government two years ago, he worked for the appropriations committee for nearly two decades. Most recently, as staff director for the Democrats.
SCOTT LILLY: A lot of the things that are being passed could not be passed if they were exposed to the light of day.
MARIA HINOJOSA: As part of his job, Lilly sat in on closed-door negotiations between the House and Senate to hash out differences in legislation.
SCOTT LILLY: I've been in staff efforts with stacks and stacks of paper, trying to assemble a perfect copy of a Bill, and some staff guy for the Speaker or the Majority Leader will come in the room and say; 'Here's five pages of-- of banking legislation, and the Speaker wants that to go in the Bill.'
MARIA HINOJOSA: Something similar happened what just three days before the Christmas recess in a Defense Department appropriations bill, says Lilly, who keeps in close contact with his former colleagues on the hill.
SCOTT LILLY: When the conference broke up, there were assurances given that nothing else would be added. And lo and behold, we have something called Appendix E, which is 45 pages of exemptions to the drug companies, of potential liability. Supposedly for avian flu, but actually the definitions are so broad that it could extend to a wide range of medications.
MARIA HINOJOSA: The legislation helps shield pharmaceutical companies from lawsuits. The top Democrat on the committee, Congressman David Obey, told NOW the language was slipped in at the last minute by Senate Majority Leader Bill First.
SCOTT LILLY: Well, we have five or six people in the Congress that are all-powerful. They can stick those kinds of things in. And they always do it on bills that have to pass. The choice that members had was stop the funding for the Defense Department while we have troops in the field or vote for this drug exemption.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Senator Frist declined our request for an interview but denies doing anything improper. Watchdog groups point out that Frist has received more than $270,000 dollars in campaign donations from the pharmaceutical and health products industries since 1989.
JIM DYER: there may be earmarks slipped in in the dead of night that people don't know about. If that is true, and I believe it is, then fix it.
MARIA HINOJOSA: And remember, Dyer was a staff director for the Republicans.
JIM DYER: The leadership is very aggressive in using appropriations as part of its carrots and sticks approach to running the institution on a daily basis.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Scott Lilly, now at a progressive think tank, witnessed that quid pro quo himself during the vote on The Central American Free Trade Agreement this summer. While eating dinner at an restaurant in Washington, he told us, he saw members of Congress being called away to the phone. He later learned individual congressman were being offered as much as $50 million dollars in earmarks in the upcoming highway bill if they would vote for the trade agreement.
Republican Congressman Ron Paul wrote on his Web site about witnessing much the same thing.
What kind of deals? Well, one member of House leadership told reluctant legislators, 'we've got to have you; you tell us what you want.' And tell they did. On and on it went, with promises of new bridges, parks, and whatever else it took to pass CAFTA.
SCOTT LILLY: So the result was people who would not have voted for a Central American Free Trade Agreement, did vote for it. They were able to get their votes because they traded highway projects in order to make that happen.
MARIA HINOJOSA: So does Congress have the political will to reform the earmark mess? Many in Congress say the time is now.
JOHN MCCAIN: I think there's a realization that change is coming.
MARIA HINOJOSA: But until that happens, it's business as usual in Washington, D.C.
MARIA HINOJOSA: You're critical of earmarks, you want reform. But you ask for earmarks.
REP. JIM COOPER: Yes, this is my list of earmarks right here.
MARIA HINOJOSA: This is your little card.
REP. JIM COOPER: Yeah. To represent your district today in America you have to be part of the game. And in the old days when I first came to Congress ten, or 20 years ago there were virtually no earmarks.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Of course the Republicans say, and they would probably point a finger at you and say, well, that's nice for Jim Cooper to be criticizing this but, hey, he puts in for pork, he puts in for earmarks. So--
REP. JIM COOPER: I've gotten as many projects as I could for my district, but that doesn't keep me from wanting to reform the system. We need a better system. I would be disadvantaging my district if I did not get what is available under current rules. But we need to change the rules.