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Washington Bureau - Telling All on "Earmarks" Easier Said than Done for Lawmakers

News Article

Location: Washington, DC


By Jim Tankersley

Democrats and Republicans scrapped last week over public disclosure of "earmarks," the time-honored, recently scorned congressional tradition of tagging federal money for lawmakers' pet projects. Two Illinois Republicans called loudly for openness.

"Earmarks should be exposed to the full sunshine of public scrutiny," a press release from Rep. Peter Roskam began. To that, Rep. Jerry Weller added: "Sunshine is the best disinfectant… I've always believed in full disclosure, and have always attached my name to the projects I request for our district."

But when a reporter asked every member of the Illinois congressional delegation to disclose their earmark proposals this week, Roskam and Weller diverged. Roskam released a detailed list of his 19 requests, which total more than $100 million. Weller's office declined, saying its policy is to release earmarks only after they win House approval.

Most of the Illinois delegation is like Weller. Only five of its 21 members gave their complete earmark requests to the Tribune: Democratic Sen. Barack Obama; GOP Reps. Roskam, Judy Biggert and Mark Kirk; and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic conference chair, who started the disclosure ball rolling on Monday.

Their requests include hundreds of millions of dollars in requests for Chicago area transportation, sewer and other projects.

Other members cited office policy—or quietly voiced fears of offending supporters, colleagues or congressional tradition—for waiting for their projects to pass before trumpeting them (and trumpet they will). A few did not respond to the inquiry. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, will release his full list of requests for each appropriations bill after the bill clears the committee, his staff said.

Obama, one of several senators running for president, will become the first White House hopeful to detail his earmark requests when his office posts his 113-item list online on Thursday.

Congress is replaying a nearly annual tradition this month as it approves money for federal agencies to spend. Lawmakers are lining up to "earmark" chunks of that money for projects they support, most often in their districts or states.

Earmarks can bring a lawmaker praise from constituents—that's why almost everyone touts them once they make it into law—and wrath from fiscal watchdog groups. Sometimes they provoke national outrage, as in the case of the derisively dubbed Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere" in 2005—a proposed earmark of $230 million to help build a span to an island populated by about 50 people.

Democrats promised earmark reform in many of the races that won them the House and Senate last year. The House followed through this year by requiring members to attach their names to earmark requests.

But when Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the appropriations committee, said earlier this month that he would send appropriations bills to a vote without earmarks and add them later—in order to give the committee more time to review requests—some Republicans cried foul. The parties struck a deal last week to include earmarks in most appropriations bills.

Amid the controversy, a few members released their full request lists in the name of disclosure. Emanuel detailed his $170 million list on Monday, saying he "wanted to take the extra step, so it's all out there." His requests included $100 million for Chicago-area transportation projects.

Roskam followed on Tuesday, with a list headlined by $33 million to help alleviate pollution and flooding in Chicagoland sewers. Kirk on Wednesday disclosed requests including $75 million (made in conjunction with Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean) for Northrop Grumman to build defenses for troop-carrying civilian aircraft against surface-to-air missiles.

Biggert's list, also released Wednesday, includes a $100 million loan guarantee for titanium powder alloy development. Full lists from Biggert, Kirk, Roskam, Emanuel and Obama will be available on Thursday morning.

Kirk urged all members of Congress to join him in releasing their requests. "I support reforms which promote transparency and accountability," he said in a statement.

But other offices and several watchdog groups said congressmen still have plenty of incentives to keep their requests secret.

Disclosure could upset the constituent groups who asked for money, particularly if a member requests less than they'd hoped or even nothing. Conversely, it could entice lobbyists to ask for even more next year. It could upset House or Senate convention. And it could invite unwelcome scrutiny from the public or the press, particularly because most earmark requests don't make it into law.

Emanuel said members who don't release their earmarks until they hit the House floor are "not being inconsistent" with earmark reforms. Some watchdogs say they should release them anyway, to boost public faith in Congress.

"When members talk about earmarks, they frame them in terms of, we know what's best for our districts, this is what's best for our districts," said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based government transparency group. "If it is indeed for local constituents, they have a right to see what's being done in the name of their interests."

In a release accompanying her earmark list, Biggert agreed.

"I know that some of these requests are long shots, and in the past we never wanted to get people's hopes up too high," she said. "But transparency now is much more important than sparing false hopes, and I want to ensure that all of our worthy projects are out there and given a chance."

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