Earmarks often fall close to home for federal lawmakers

David S. Fallis,Scott Higham,Kimberly Kindy

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. senator from Alabama directed more than $100 million in federal earmarks to renovate downtown Tuscaloosa near his own commercial office building. A congressman from Georgia secured $6.3 million in taxpayer funds to replenish the beach about 900 feet from his island vacation cottage. A representative from Michigan earmarked $486,000 to add a bike lane to a bridge within walking distance of her home.

Thirty-three members of Congress have steered 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.

Under the ethics rules Congress has written for itself, this is both legal and undisclosed.

The Post analyzed public records on the holdings of all 535 members and compared them with earmarks members had sought for pet projects, most of them since 2008. The process uncovered appropriations for work in close proximity to commercial and residential real estate owned by the lawmakers or their family members. The review also found 16 lawmakers who sent tax dollars to companies, colleges or community programs where their spouses, children or parents work as salaried employees or serve on boards.

In recent weeks, lawmakers have acknowledged the public's growing concern that they appeared to be using their positions to enrich themselves. In response, the Senate last week passed legislation that would require lawmakers to disclose mortgages for their residences. The bill, known as the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, would also require lawmakers and executive branch officials to disclosure securities trades of more than $1,000 every 30 days. At the same time, the Senate defeated an amendment, 59-40, that would have permanently outlawed earmarks.

The House is scheduled to vote on the Stock Act on Thursday.

Earmarks have long been controversial, with the focus on spending that unduly favors campaign donors or constituents. The Post's review is the first systematic effort to examine the alignment of earmarks with lawmakers' private interests.

Earmarks are a fraction of the federal budget and the numbers uncovered by The Post are relatively small in the scheme of the overall Congress, but the behavior by lawmakers from both parties points to a larger issue at a time when confidence in Capitol Hill is at an all-time low.

The congressional financial disclosure system obscures certain relationships. Lawmakers are not required to disclose the addresses of their personal residences or the employment of their children and parents. The lawmakers are also allowed to put properties in holding companies without disclosing the properties' locations. Current versions of the Stock Act would not change that. To provide a fuller portrait of congressional connections, The Post compared the disclosure forms with the public record to track spending on projects near legislators' properties or on programs employing their relatives.

In interviews, lawmakers said their earmarks were needs brought to them by the city and state officials they represent to help pay for safer roads, nicer neighborhoods or improved local economies. They characterized questions about the nearby locations of their own holdings as irrelevant, insisting there is no conflict. Any potential personal benefit -- financial or otherwise -- is nonexistent, minimal or secondary to the needs of the public, they said.

Mere proximity to a lawmaker's property does not establish that an earmark was unwarranted. In some cases, the public benefit of the spending was large, improving life for thousands. In others, the benefit appeared narrower. In some cases, the work was within a mile or two of the properties; in others, it was directly in front of the lawmaker's land.

By design, ethics rules governing Congress are intended to preserve the freedom of members to direct federal spending in their districts, a process known as earmarking. Such spending has long been cloaked in secrecy and only in recent years has been subjected to more transparency.

Although Congress has imposed numerous conflict-of-interest rules on federal agencies and private businesses, the rules it has set for itself are far more permissive.

Lawmakers are required to certify that they do not have a financial stake in the actions they take. In the cases The Post examined, not one lawmaker mentioned that he or she owned property that was near the earmarked project or had a relative who was employed by the company or institution that received the earmark. The reason: Nothing in congressional rules requires them to do so and the rules do not address proximity.

Congress' interpretation of what constitutes a conflict is narrowly construed: If lawmakers or their immediate families are not the sole beneficiaries, there is considered to be no conflict.

The chambers of Congress have different standards. In the Senate, members must certify that neither they nor their "immediate" family members have a financial interest. But in the House, only lawmakers and their spouses are covered, not children or parents.

The economic impact of earmarks on lawmakers' properties was often difficult to determine. Many of the earmarks documented by The Post went to projects still under way. Public works projects can have the immeasurable benefit of stabilizing land values in the volatile market of recent years.

Lawmakers insist the earmarks are in the public's interest, not in theirs. They create earmarks by inserting provisions into legislation steering or adding federal funds for projects and programs not requested by the executive branch.

Earmark decisions are made behind closed doors in committee rooms and rarely debated on the floor of the House or Senate. The more powerful the member, the more likely he or she is able to get an earmark through.

The practice has long been a lightning rod for criticism. Then-speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., caused a scandal in 2006 when it was revealed that he had inserted a $207 million earmark to build a highway near property he owned in Illinois.

Yet earmarking shot to new levels in the past decade as hundreds of lawmakers stuffed bills with pet projects. In 2010, the number of earmarks hit a new high: 11,320 worth $32 billion.

As earmarking increased, reporters and watchdog groups, including Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste, publicized dubious earmarks. The public backlash eventually prompted Congress to make changes, beginning in 2007. For the first time, lawmakers were required to put their name next to earmarks they sought.

Last year, as criticism and scrutiny mounted, Congress imposed a two-year moratorium on new earmarks. The Senate last week extended the ban another year.

Some contend the moratorium has just driven the practice underground. Six months into the moratorium, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., identified more than 100 special spending provisions in a House defense bill that she said were clearly earmarks.

McCaskill's efforts prompted lawmakers to strip the provisions from the final bill but her attempts to turn the moratorium into a permanent ban has found little support on Capitol Hill. So far, only 12 lawmakers have signed onto her bill.

Congress polices its own conflicts through House and Senate ethics committees.

Under the 2007 reforms, members were required to certify that they had no financial interest in the earmarks they sought. Under Senate rules, a lawmaker is considered to have a financial interest only when the "principal purpose" of the spending is to benefit a "limited class" -- themselves, their spouses or their immediate family. In other words, the spending is permitted unless lawmakers are guiding money to build such things as private roads or driveways, or directly funding their relatives' salaries.

The Washington Post