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Despite reforms, lawmakers still rake in earmarks dough
San Francisco Chronicle


September 04, 2007
Tuesday AM

WASHINGTON -- House Democrats are making headway on their goals of slashing pork-barrel spending in half and disclosing more information about spending on lawmakers' pet projects, known as earmarks.

But while spending on earmarks may be trimmed and more closely scrutinized this year, top Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi aren't exactly suffering.

The San Francisco Democrat raked in almost $100 million in earmarks in the spending bills passed this year, according to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks congressional spending. That means Pelosi is getting more than 1 percent of all earmarks doled out to the House's 435 members.

Pelosi's top deputies are doing just as well -- or better. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., brought in $85.5 million. Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the House Appropriations Committee chairman, got $96 million. And Pelosi's close ally, Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., who oversees defense spending, rang up $186 million for pet projects.

Congressional spending watchdogs say the story is simple: As the earmark pie shrinks, top Democrats and key House appropriators are still serving themselves big helpings of federal money for hometown projects. More junior lawmakers and those who don't sit on the powerful spending committee are left scraping for a smaller share of a smaller pie.

"Appropriators and leadership know how to work the system ... and they are in a position to advance their goals," said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Watchdog groups praise Democrats' efforts to rein in pork spending, which exploded over the last decade under Republican rule. But Alexander said heavy earmarking by Pelosi and other party leaders raises questions about their commitment to making deep cuts.

"It seems like they are not necessarily leading by example," she said.

Pelosi's office disputed the Taxpayers for Common Sense analysis of her earmarks as inflated, saying that $55 million of her earmarks were Army Corps of Engineers projects around San Francisco Bay requested by President Bush. She simply weighed in to support the local projects, as many members do, her aides said.

The group's analysis is a conservative tally: If two lawmakers shared an earmark, its cost was split between the two. Pelosi alone requested $62.1 million in earmarks, but if you add up all the spending projects she requested along with the president or other House members, the total climbs to $141.3 million, the group found.

Pelosi still favors ending the practice of earmarks, said her communications director, Brendan Daly, although there is little support in Congress from either party to do it. "With the system we have ... she's going to continue to try to get money for the district, for her constituents," he said.

Few Republicans are ringing alarm bells over the spending of top Democrats. Why? Because many top Republicans, especially appropriators, are reaping similarly large amounts for their districts.

Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands, Calif., the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, pulled in more than Pelosi -- $124 million. Florida Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, the top Republican on the Defense Appropriations panel, received $142 million. He and Murtha, who control the biggest pot of money, apply an unwritten rule: The majority party gets 60 percent of the earmarks, the minority party gets 40 percent.

Earmarks became a campaign issue last fall after playing a key role in several congressional scandals: Rep. Duke Cunningham, a San Diego Republican, was convicted of accepting bribes of cash, cars, antiques and the use of a yacht in exchange for earmarking millions for defense contractors. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted of several fraud-related felonies, called the Appropriations Committee an earmark "favor factory."

Stories of questionable earmarks continue to dog powerful lawmakers. The FBI is investigating why Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, slipped a $10 million earmark into a 2005 highway bill for a road in Florida -- far from his home state -- near property owned by a big campaign donor. Florida officials recently decided to refuse the money.

Democrats say rules approved earlier this year will prevent a repeat of such scandals. House members now must disclose when they request an earmark and whether they or their family members will benefit financially from it.


E-mail Zachary Coile at zcoile(at)
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