The debate over Federal earmarks, commonly blasted as ‘pork barrel’ spending, is shaping up to be one of this election season’s most contested issues.
Rayne Mayor Jim Petitjean
photo by Terri Fensel
When Rayne Mayor Jim Petitjean went to Capitol Hill this year in hopes of securing further funding for a new I-10 interchange in his city, he didn’t foresee any road blocks. Former U.S. Rep. Chris John got the ball on the interchange rolling several years ago by securing $1 million for an environmental impact study approved by the Federal Highway Administration. Rayne is also reeling in a multi-million dollar water park development to be built near the proposed interchange, bolstering Petitjean’s case. The I-10 project is widely regarded as a necessity and has already won over the support of local, state and federal officials.
So when Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany turned him away and cited his new policy of no longer putting in appropriations requests for any projects, Petitjean was nonplussed.
“That was news to me,” says Petitjean, who had never heard a congressman refusing a similar request. “It was disheartening. Since this [interchange project] started we’ve attracted a huge development, so there’s now really a need for it. I felt a lot more confident going to Washington this year than ever before. Boustany said to me personally that he thought the interchange was important to the area, but that he felt that the process with earmarks has kind of run amuck and it needed to be reformed. Therefore he wasn’t going to be taking any requests.”
Petitjean had already planned to meet with other members of the state’s congressional delegation and believes he has found willing sponsors for the interchange funding with U.S. Sens. David Vitter and Mary Landrieu, as well as 5th District U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.
“It’s not a deal killer,” Petitjean says of Boustany’s refusal to submit his appropriations request. “At least he was honest — I have to give him that much.”
Petitjean isn’t alone. St. Landry Parish President Don Menard recently had a similar experience with Boustany when he tried to request federal funds to assist with a proposed interchange improvement at I-49 and Hwy. 190. When Menard goes to Washington next month, he won’t be meeting with Boustany on the issue.
“He’s against earmarks,” Menard says. “We’re going to Sen. Vitter and Sen. Landrieu. I don’t know [Boustany’s] reasons for not wanting to put an earmark request in. Some of those requests are ludicrous and a waste of taxpayer dollars but in this case I really believe he would support it. He’s not going to fight us getting a request.”
Boustany is one of a growing number of congressmen — although thus far the only one in Louisiana — who have sworn off appropriations requests, or earmarks. Often derided as superfluous or “pork barrel” spending, earmarks are line item spending provisions that congressmen often tack on to appropriations bills for special projects. Projects funded through earmarks run the gamut from interstate interchanges to airport improvements to private developments and balloon festivals. Some of the appropriations go through standard committee hearings while others are notorious for being quietly added onto bills at the 11th hour. In recent years, as earmark spending has bloated the federal budget, earmarks have increasingly become a politically charged subject.
In Louisiana, earmarks are already surfacing as a hot topic in this fall’s elections. Republican U.S. Senate candidate John Kennedy has been using the issue to try to draw a fundamental distinction between himself and incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat. And in the 7th Congressional District, recently announced Democratic Party candidate Don Cravins Jr. is taking aim at his opponent’s blanket policy of not taking appropriations requests.
“In southwest Louisiana we’re still reeling from Hurricane Rita,” says the Opelousas state senator. “Many of the local governments that I work with are very frustrated by the fact that when we need any type of Congressional help, we have to go to Sen. Landrieu or Sen. Vitter because Congressman Boustany refuses to obtain those local monies. Our congressman doesn’t believe in it.” Cravins says he would support any reforms designed to make the earmark process more transparent, but also believes Congressmen should be aggressive in pursuing any federal funds available for their districts.
Boustany declined to be interviewed for this article, requesting submitted questions only. The Independent Weekly e-mailed Boustany’s office six questions about the congressman’s new policy toward earmarks, other avenues of federal funding available to local communities and what specific changes to the federal appropriations system he would like to see. Boustany spokesman Rick Curtsinger sent back a two-sentence statement:
“Earmarks are one symptom of a broken Washington,” Boustany says, “and we need a new system with transparency to ensure no more ‘Bridges to Nowhere.’ I continue to support local communities in Acadiana and Southwest Louisiana in their efforts to obtain competitive federal grants and develop long-term vetted funding solutions to guarantee these projects like rebuilding our coast are sustainable for multiple years, not just one.”
What constitutes a “pork” project is often in the eye of the beholder. The most frequently-cited example of earmark abuse is Alaska’s proposed $400 million Gravina Island Bridge, dubbed the “bridge to nowhere.” Designed as a grand, arching span between the small city of Ketchikan and the remote Gravina Island, the project was singled out by earmark critics who discovered Gravina Island’s population was less than 50 people. (It also houses an international airport). Alaska’s Republican Sen. Ted Stevens fanned the flames in October 2005 when he opposed diverting money from both Alaska’s Gravina and Knik Arm bridges to Hurricane Katrina aid. In his speech on the Senate floor, Stevens famously threatened to quit Congress if the funds were removed from his state. Despite community support for the project, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin pulled the plug on the Gravina Island bridge last year.
More disturbing are a series of recent scandals where lawmakers have found themselves in legal trouble over earmarks. Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., is now in federal prison after admitting to accepting bribes in exchange for his help in securing lucrative defense department contracts and earmarks. Rep. Don Young, R- Alaska, and former House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., are also reportedly under investigation for awarding earmarks to generous campaign contributors.
Louisiana lawmakers haven’t been immune to earmark controversies. In a 2005 article titled “The Great American Pork Barrel,” Harper’s Magazine detailed how former La. Rep. Bob Livingston, who chaired the House Appropriations Committee in the late 1990s, cashed in on earmarks. While in Congress, Livingston helped steer a $7.3 million grant to the fledgling Louisiana company JRL Enterprises, which produces the “I Can Learn Math” software. The next year, Livingston left Congress, became a lobbyist and soon after listed JRL as a major client.
Earlier this year, Sen. Mary Landrieu, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, found herself in hot water following a scathing Washington Post investigation which found that Landrieu sponsored a $2 million earmark for one of her campaign contributors that went toward purchasing a reading program for D.C. schools. One of the heads of the Voyager Expanded literacy program, Randy Best, threw a fund raiser for Landrieu in October 2001, netting approximately $30,000 for the senator’s campaign fund. Less than a month later, Landrieu helped attach the Voyager earmark to a D.C. appropriations bill.
Best has said that the fund raiser was not tied to any legislation. Landrieu has since come out with documentation showing that the earmark for Voyager was supported by D.C. school officials and had been in the works several months prior to the fund raiser.
Congressmen awarding earmarks to political contributors isn’t uncommon. Even reform-minded Boustany’s hands aren’t entirely clean. The Advocate recently reported that donors associated with the Lafayette surveying firm C&C Technologies, a company which holds millions in federal contracts, contributed $20,300 to Boustany’s campaign since his 2004 election. Last year Boustany sponsored an earmark worth up to $1 million for C&C Technologies. “I get campaign contributions from many, many people back home, and there is no connection whatsoever,” Boustany told The Advocate. “This is a very well-known company.”
In addition to political patronage, earmarks are also seen as a symbol of Washington’s corrupt power structure. The more senior and influential members of Congress, and those on key committees such as appropriations, have more control over which earmarks get approved. Both parties, when in power, have also tried to game the system to their advantage. Former Republican House Majority Leader Tom Delay began a practice of awarding Appropriations Committee seats to newly and narrowly elected Republicans whose seats were viewed as vulnerable. More recently, Democrats have been accused of employing a similar tactic.
State Treasurer John Kennedy, in his bid to unseat Sen. Mary Landrieu, has tried to paint the 12-year incumbent as a product of a broken Washington system. One recent Kennedy press release asserted: “Sen. Landrieu has a clear, 12-year record in staunch defense of earmarks. We wish her good luck with that.” Kennedy’s communications director, Leonardo Alcivar, says Kennedy supports all reforms that would make the earmark process more transparent. Alcivar would not say whether Kennedy would adopt a policy similar to Boustany’s of refusing appropriations requests until the system is fundamentally reformed.
“Over the course of the campaign, we’ll be talking about our view of exactly what we’ll be doing on earmarks,” Alcivar says. “There’s more to come on that. What is clear is if we could find a way to do away with it, John Kennedy will fight tooth and nail to make sure we have earmark reform from day one. The difference is going to be we are not simply going to enact a philosophy that says we don’t care how much the budget deficits grow and we don’t care how much the overall budget grows.”
Landrieu defends her appropriations requests, while avoiding the word ‘earmark.’ She notes she has supported legislation to make earmark requests more open to public scrutiny, and notes a false perception that earmarks are the cause of swelling budget deficits.
“Dedicated federal spending is a good scapegoat for the out-of-control spending that is the result of sending hundreds of billions to Iraq and President Bush’s failed economic policy,” she writes in an e-mailed response to submitted questions. “The truth is that [earmarks] only account for less than 1 percent of all federal spending. Like President Bush, John Neely Kennedy is ignoring his own hypocrisy on this issue. As chairman of the Bond Commission, he approved $325 million in earmarks for nongovernmental organizations.”
Ironies abound when it comes to tough talk on earmark spending. President Bush has often railed against congressional earmarks. However, critics note that the president’s own budgetary earmarks are roughly equal to that of Congress. Boustany’s stand against earmarks didn’t apply when he supported both the recent Farm Bill and the Water Resources Development Act, which were both loaded up with earmarks. (President Bush vetoed both bills due to the earmarked spending in each, but Congress overrode his vetoes.) In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal spoke out this year against earmarks in the state budget. However, while in Congress last year, Jindal led all other Louisiana reps in earmark spending, with $98 million.
How much earmarks have inflated the federal budget is often debated. Earmarks themselves have risen dramatically over the past decade. In the early 1990s, the number of earmarks in the annual budget was typically less than 1,000, totaling less than $3 billion. The high mark came in 2005, when Congress passed some 14,000 earmarks, worth more than $27 billion.
This year, there are 11,780 earmarks totaling $18.3 billion. That 23 percent reduction over three years represents a dedicated effort on behalf of both Congress and the president to rein in spending on special projects. Last year, Congress also passed a law that for the first time mandated public disclosure of all earmarks and their sponsors.
Jim Ellis, of the D.C.-based group Taxpayers for Common Sense, says Congress still needs to go further. The nonpartisan, nonprofit budgetary watchdog, which tracks congressional earmark spending, wants to see Congress post all earmarks in an easily searchable online database. They also advocate cutting back the number of earmarks to less than 1,000 a year. Ellis adds that while $18.3 billion is less than 1 percent of the federal government’s overall $2.8 trillion budget, that includes all nondiscretionary spending. He points out that $18.3 billion is more than the budgets for both the Departments of Interior and Commerce combined. “To real America, $18.3 billion is a heck of a lot of money,” he says.
Taxpayers for Common Sense applauds congressional members like Boustany who have pledged to no longer take appropriations requests. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Well, yeah, I think there’s a problem, but until it’s fixed I’m just going to continue to play the game,’” Ellis says. “That’s not leadership. That’s being a follower. When you say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to play the game; I’m going to step out of this until we get it right,’ then that’s actually trying to challenge the system and to lead.”
According to Ellis, there are now some two dozen members of Congress from both parties who have pledged not to take earmarks. This year, they include presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. McCain has been an especially strident opponent of earmarks, pledging to end them altogether. Other congressional members have taken a more modest approach, pledging only to cease earmark requests for private entities.
Not all earmarks go to questionable projects. They often go to important infrastructure projects, health programs that help save lives, and groundbreaking research. In Louisiana, they’ve helped fund roads, levees, school improvements and university research. Last year, Boustany secured more than $1.4 million for Lafayette Regional Airport upgrades, $274,000 for an Acadiana Outreach Center redevelopment and more than $800,000 for Lafayette Consolidated Government’s multimodal center, all through earmarks.
One unwavering supporter of earmarks is U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander. Alexander is unapologetic for his appropriations requests, despite criticism. Among Alexander’s noted earmarks: Last year, he helped secure $1.6 million to outfit the Bastrop Police Department with new bullet proof vests. Because the entire Bastrop Police force consists of 23 officers, and bullet proof vests run around $700 a piece, the earmark was seen as excessive by some critics. (Alexander’s office says the money also went toward other equipment upgrades in the department.)
“I think earmark requests need to be available for the public to see what appropriators are asking for,” Alexander says. “But what we’ve allowed is for the system to become tainted to the point that the public is under the belief that all earmarks are wrong, and that’s not necessarily the case.”
Alexander says earmarks are a vital tool for Congress, especially when it comes to representing rural areas that would otherwise be left out of the budgetary process. “I would rather the tax money stay in Louisiana and let Louisiana decide how to spend it,” he says. “But if Washington is going to draw money out of your pocket, then it’s my job to bring as much of it back to Louisiana as I can. If I don’t do that, then I’m shirking my responsibility. And for me to say, ‘Oh, it’s going to look like I’m doing something wrong, so I’ll just let the president and the people that work for him spend the money,’ I don’t see where that’s fair. That’s not doing justice for the people in Louisiana.”
Though the political climate in Washington has obviously changed, Mayor Petitjean is still hopeful that Rayne will receive funding for its new I-10 interchange. And while he says he isn’t holding anything against Boustany, it’s clear that the mayor and his congressman don’t see eye-to-eye on the issue. “Earmark’s the new buzz word around the political scene,” Petitjean says. “The people that represent us in Baton Rouge and Washington, part of their job is to bring home money to their districts for projects. And I mean, here’s a project that’s on Interstate 10 and last time I checked, that’s a federal highway. So I would think that they would help as they have in the past, and we’re just going to continue to push forward.”