Lawmakers Flood House With Pet Highway Projects
It's as if the outcry over pet projects in big spending bills -- commonly known as "earmarks" -- never occurred.
With the House preparing what is expected to be a $400 billion bill outlining the next six years of federal spending on roads, bridges and mass transit, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee called for requests for money for specific projects.
Those that came in by last week's deadline run from $360,000 for fuel-efficient buses in Chippewa Falls, Wis., to $1.2 billion for a subway line in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.
The process is just beginning: Not every request will be approved and the Senate has yet to start taking what could be thousands of requests from its members. But it appears that the appetite for earmarks hasn't slackened much from the last highway bill, a $286 billion package passed in 2005 that contained some 6,300 earmarks worth about $24 billion.
That 2005 law did much to intensify anti-earmark sentiments because of the sheer number and the attention given to the "bridge to nowhere," a proposal to spend more than $200 million for a bridge in a sparsely populated area of Alaska. Both Barack Obama and John McCain pledged during their presidential campaigns to crack down on earmarking practices.
That hasn't stopped lawmakers who argue that they know best the special needs of their constituencies. A $410 billion bill signed by Obama in March to keep federal programs operating through September contained nearly 8,000 earmarks. Obama called for tighter restrictions but also acknowledged that some earmarks are justified and useful.
Watchdog groups are applauding the Transportation Committee for at least making the earmark process more open. Unlike in the past, every project in the bill will have a member's name attached to it. Lawmakers are required to post their requests on their personal Web sites and to accompany their requests with a letter from a state or local agency showing support for the project.
"We are way ahead of where we were just three years ago," said Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation. "But they could still be doing it better."
Allison said the Transportation Committee process falls short of a new requirement in both the House and Senate Appropriations committees that members post earmark requests online before they submit them. Also, there is no central location for posting requests, making them difficult to find on Web sites.
Allison said seven Web-savvy staffers in his office had been able to track down project requests on only 85 House member Web sites.
Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense agreed that "we have some information that we didn't have in the past," while stressing that the transparency bar should be high for the people "who brought us the bridge to nowhere."
By definition, the inclusion of thousands of earmarks makes a bill less transparent, Ellis said. "They are laying out a pretty big haystack and we are looking for needles."
Allison expressed support for a proposal by Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., to change House rules to require members to used the word "earmark" when they post project requests on their Web sites. Committees would reject requests that don't meet the disclosure rules and would have to keep a searchable online database of requests.
"It's the veil of opaqueness that gives them the bad name," Cassidy said of the projects. "We want to make this front and center so, boom, your constituent can log on and see it."
Cassidy himself has applied for almost $100 million for four projects in the Baton Rouge area. Each request is accompanied by an explanation and a Google map. Speier posted 16 pages of specifications and letters of support in her request for $25 million to improve an interchange in Burlingame, Calif., near San Francisco.
House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, emphasizing his party's push on earmark reform, on Tuesday sent his GOP colleagues a letter saying they must post their highway project requests by Friday.
Obama's budget calls for $325 billion over six years for the surface transportation bill. House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., has suggested that $450 billion is needed to meet the nation's infrastructure needs. Higher gasoline and diesel taxes or more toll booths could make up the difference.