Lend me your earmark
Only one of three local Congress members identify the bacon they’re bringing home
Most voters want a representative who can “bring home the bacon”—that is, a politician who will make sure that some tax money finds its way home to the district in the form of projects that will have local benefits. But most of that “bacon” comes from a “pork barrel,” and, as the phrase suggests, it may have a bit of grease and stink about it.
Take, for example, the case of former congressman and current incarcerated felon Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the San Diego Republican who took bribes of more than $2 million to earmark federal funds—some mighty juicy pork—and wield influence for his co-conspirators.
“Earmarking” is the process of allocating federal funds to specific projects. Members of Congress do this, often without the knowledge of their constituents and with little in the way of oversight. Some earmarked projects might be as innocent as a museum. Other earmarks might reward big-bucks campaign donors, which is the reason for concern about who’s making them, how much money is involved and who is benefiting.
Jim Cox, an associate professor of government at CSUS, told SN&R that budget earmarks “are a way to get broader support for a program … that may not be [supportive] to their district.” In other words, members of Congress will use earmarks to bring money into their district in order to please their constituents, then point to that project in order to build support for other projects or bills that are not necessarily in their constituents’ best interests.
Earlier this summer, CNN put their interns to work contacting all 435 members of the House of Representatives for a list of the earmarks each had attached to appropriations bills in the current congressional session. A very small minority of the representatives provided the information. Most declined to comment or failed to respond to the request altogether.
This piqued SN&R’s curiosity: What were our own local representatives up to when it came to earmarking tax money for specific projects? According to the initial report, all three area congressional representatives—Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, John Doolittle, R-Roseville, and Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento—did not respond to the request from CNN’s interns.
Would they talk to SN&R’s interns about earmarks?
Matsui’s staff members did not return repeated calls to her office requesting comment on earmarks. But at least SN&R’s interns weren’t treated any worse than CNN’s interns.
Doolittle is all about disclosing earmark requests—just not to the public. In a June 15 press release, he boasted of forcing House Democrats into an agreement that would make requests known to all representatives—not necessarily to their constituents—and subject to debate. He accused the Democrats of campaigning against earmark secrecy, only to revert to those same tight-lipped practices once they were elected. Not that he thinks there’s anything wrong with earmarks—in the same press release, Doolittle said that he’s not leading “a crusade against earmarks” and that spending is clearly the responsibility of the legislative branch.
So despite Doolittle’s failure to respond to CNN’s call to release a full list of earmark requests, SN&R had hopes he’d be more receptive when contacted by a newspaper in his own district.
“I’m not going to get into a discussion of how many he’s done,” said Doolittle’s chief of staff, Ron Rogers, when asked for a list of the congressman’s earmarks.
Not only did Rogers consider the number of earmarks unimportant, he also said it was such “a long list, I don’t even know where to begin.” He did, however, refer SN&R to Doolittle’s Web site, which advertises his two latest earmark successes: $200,000 for the Oroville State Theater and $300,000 for Sierra College’s mechatronics program, earmarked in the appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior.
But provide a complete list, or even a number? Nope.
Lungren was the most forthcoming. His communications director, Brian Kaveney, told SN&R that the representative wants to keep corruption away from earmarks. “[Representative] Lungren believes there should be more transparency with regards to earmark-funding requests,” said Kaveney. Lungren has made 33 earmark requests this year, and Kaveney noted that not one focused on beautifying the community, which is often a tactic legislators use to convey to constituents that they are making a difference in their district. Seven of Lungren’s earmark requests are directed toward flood control, a chronic concern in the region.
And all of Lungren’s earmark requests for the current session of Congress are listed on his Web page, along with a brief description of the project and the appropriations bill he plans to include the earmark in. It is, without a doubt, the most citizen-friendly approach to earmarks of any of the local legislators.
Even though Lungren is selective about his requests for earmarks, he’s still not all that thrilled with the concept. According to Kaveney, “If the congressman could do away with earmarks in the appropriations process, he would be more than happy to.”
And in spite of the concern surrounding earmarks, CSUS’s Cox wants to make it clear that “the issue can be overblown. When earmarks are tied to specific instances of corruption, you’re talking about a small sum of money in the larger scheme of things.”
Apparently, that larger scheme of things doesn’t include telling interns—or the public—where the money’s going.