Lawmakers tight-lipped on pet projects
WASHINGTON - Congressional budget leaders are sifting through tens of thousands of requests submitted this week by House members seeking taxpayer money for projects back home.
These earmark requests are conducted in secret, reaching the light of day only when they are likely to get funded.
But a growing group of lawmakers and the three major presidential contenders are making earmark reform a campaign issue. More than 40 members of Congress have rejected these parochial projects outright, while at least 66 are voluntarily divulging what earmarks they are fighting for.
In Utah, only Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson released his earmark requests when asked by The Salt Lake Tribune. He is seeking more than $100 million to fund nearly 50 projects ranging from military technology to road construction.
Utah's other two House members refused to identify the earmarks they endorsed, but Republican Reps. Chris Cannon and Rob Bishop did release basic lists of every request their offices received from Utah groups. Somewhere on that long list are the items they have submitted for funding.
Utah's senators, Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, will release information only on earmarks that are successful.
The congressional offices gave a variety of reasons for refusing to disclose their earmark requests. One cited privacy concerns for those seeking federal funds, most of whom are local government leaders. More than one lawmaker didn't want to deal with organizations upset that their requests were denied.
Watchdog groups bristle at such comments.
That sounds like "politicians wanting to preserve the possibility of talking out of both sides of their mouth," said Steve Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit group that tracks earmarks.
Groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Sunlight Foundation argue for more transparency in the earmarking process, which has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, especially after a California congressman was sent to prison in a bribery scandal.
Some earmarks have been tagged as wasteful spending, while others have gone to big time campaign contributors.
Members of Congress say almost every project is aboveboard and good for their home state, but the secrecy surrounding their choice of earmarks makes it difficult for voters to verify that, said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group fighting for government transparency.
"They have to make choices," he said. "By keeping it secret, they are not accountable for those choices."
This is the first time Matheson has released his earmark requests. No one has asked for the information before, said Alyson Heyrend, his spokeswoman.
"Congressman Matheson has said from day one that his requests are based on the merits of the project and the overall benefits to Utahns," she said. "He's comfortable sharing that with the public."
But he is alone among Utah's federal officeholders.
Bennett and Hatch voted against a one-year moratorium on earmarks recently, touting their knowledge of Utah's needs over that of federal bureaucrats.
After the vote, Bennett said: "I will continue efforts to see that this practice is done in a responsible and transparent manner."
But during a meeting with The Tribune's editorial board last week, Bennett said he declined to disclose earmark requests because he wants to avoid angry calls from proponents of projects rejected by his office.
"It does make life a little easier," Bennett said. "Out of fairness for those who ask and don't get, it is a logical thing to do."
Bennett secures more earmarks than any other Utahn because of his position on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He also discloses less information than others in Utah's delegation.
He refuses to identify requests to his office, the ones he endorses and the intended recipients of the earmarks he ultimately gets funded.
He does release the dollar amount and a one paragraph description of the projects that receive funding, as required. Bennett said he is simply following the lead of the Senate ranking member on the appropriations committee.
"This is the way we have always done it," he said.
Cannon also has decided against disclosing the projects he is fighting to fund because it would upset those who didn't get money.
"Releasing what is requested, while it would make for good gossip, would cause nothing but trouble in the district he is sworn to serve," said Cannon spokesman Fred Piccolo. He called such requests "a media-driven game of pitting worthy project versus worthy project for the joy of editorial writers."
Hatch also refused to release his requests because he didn't want to see the items "appear in the newspaper," according to spokeswoman Heather Barney.
"Due to concerns for constituents' privacy, our office does not release requests that are not included on final appropriation lists," Barney said. "This allows Utah's organizations and citizens to retain the opportunity to make requests in future Congresses, without any prior biases or publicity."
Bishop doesn't want to release his project requests because of what he considers a flawed appropriations system.
"It's an internal process but with a lot of external factors that affect it, so it makes more sense to disclose what we're actually successful in getting funding for," said Scott Parker, Bishop's chief of staff.
Watchdog groups complain that the lack of information stifles debate and bolsters a system where political muscle is often more important than merit.
Matheson not only released his requests, he also identified his top priorities.
He wants $200,000 for the Uintah County Drug Court, $7.3 million for a Utah National Guard surveillance program, $320,000 for bison habitat on the Henry Mountains, and nearly $2 million to purchase electronic health-record software, among others.
Matheson will most likely secure only a fraction of the money he is asking for once congressional leaders pare down the requests.
Last year, House members asked for 32,000 earmarks and 11,234 were funded.
House Appropriation staffers could not say how many requests were made this week.
They have to make choices. By keeping it secret, they are not accountable for those choices.
-This is the attribution, with the name set in a Bill Allison,a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan group that fights for government transparency.