Lawmakers Find a Path Around an Earmarks BanBy RAYMOND HERNANDEZ
New York Times
March 17, 2011
Representative Timothy H. Bishop of eastern Long Island reached out to a top colonel in the Army Corps of Engineers a few weeks ago seeking help on something that might have slipped under the radar: dredging Lake Montauk.
Representative Gary L. Ackerman had his own parochial request when he wrote to the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs: a new veterans’ hospital that people in his district, in Queens and Nassau County, would use.
Other lawmakers have been making similar entreaties — to the transportation secretary, for example, to get financing to pay for high-speed rail in their state out of a pool of federal stimulus money.
Congress pledged to usher in a new way of doing business in recent months when it banned earmarks, the widely criticized provisions that lawmakers insert into huge federal budget bills to pay for pet projects back home without much, if any, public oversight. The ban was one of the promises made by a newly elected class of conservatives in the House.
But, as it turns out, lawmakers still have a way to get their favorite projects funded: appealing directly to federal agencies for money that is already available. And agency officials seem to be paying attention, though an executive order has directed agencies not to take on projects based on the recommendations of members of Congress. In some cases, that may be the result of the clout certain lawmakers have over how much money an agency receives.
The Army Corps of Engineers said it was carefully weighing whether to dredge Lake Montauk now, as Mr. Bishop, a Democrat, had asked. “We take the request very seriously,” said Chris Gardner, a spokesman for the agency.
Some lawmakers say the earmark ban has left them no choice but to go directly to the agencies. “We have to make an end run around the roadblocks we are facing,” said Mr. Ackerman, a 14-term incumbent. “Those of us who are fast on our feet will have the advantage of being able to deliver for our constituents.”
Representative Peter T. King, a 10-term Republican from Long Island, said that the ability to reach out directly to agency officials for financing was suddenly “more important now with the earmark ban in place.”
“I will do everything I can to protect my district,” he said.
But government watchdogs are raising objections about the direct lobbying of agencies by lawmakers who have influence over those agencies.
Ryan Alexander, the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group, said lawmakers placed unwarranted political pressure on agency officials when they sidestepped the legislative process and tried to direct agencies’ spending.
“Just like with earmarks, political muscle will too often outweigh project merit,” Mr. Alexander said. “A federal agency head is likely going to pay more attention to a lawmaker that chairs the right committee than a freshman.”
Representative Ackerman, a Democrat, acknowledged that more-senior members of Congress enjoyed an edge.
“Those of us who have been here for a while and are more adept have a distinct advantage over those who have just gotten here and may not have a clue,” he said.
“The guys who know the system are going to be able to deliver.”
Mr. Alexander also said that direct appeals to agency heads were much harder to track than earmarks under the recent Congressional overhaul. “A predictable, but unfortunate, side effect of the earmark moratorium is that these requests are going underground and hard to discover,” he said.
Over the past few weeks, the financing requests have been coming in to federal agencies from lawmakers in both parties, according to interviews and Congressional records.
The scramble to secure financing for constituents back home has been especially intense as Republican leaders in Congress demand steep cuts in federal spending.
In early February, for example, Senator Jon Tester of Montana, a Democrat, called a top official at the Department of Veterans Affairs to urge the agency not to abandon a construction project to expand a veterans’ clinic in Billings, according to his office.
A few days after Mr. Tester called, the department announced that it would be moving ahead with the project, after months of delays and uncertainty. Mr. Tester’s office said the project would create up to 70 jobs.
Part of what is driving lawmakers is their objection to the idea of giving Washington bureaucrats control over the financing of local projects. Many lawmakers argue that they know their districts better than anyone else and are in the best position to determine which projects are worthy of federal financing.
On Long Island, Mr. Bishop, a five-term incumbent, had been receiving complaints from local officials and fishermen that a buildup of sand was making Lake Montauk, which is actually a heavily used bay, impassable during low tide.
Then Mr. Bishop, the top Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees the Army Corps of Engineers, along with Senator Charles E. Schumer, wrote to a top colonel at the agency this month asking that it immediately dredge Lake Montauk, which is popular with commercial and recreational fishermen. The corps was going to deal with the issue in 2013.
Questioned about his role, Mr. Bishop said he doubted that the Obama administration would have dealt with the matter. “Who do you think is more worried about the Montauk inlet?” he asked. “Me or the president? That is the crux of the issue.”
Some of the biggest protests over the ban on earmarks have come from members who have been highly successful at delivering money to their districts, like Representative Maurice D. Hinchey, a Democrat whose district is in southern New York.
As a member of the Appropriations Committee, he was accustomed to inserting projects for his district into federal spending bills. Now, he says he will step up his efforts to go outside the appropriations process to get things done for his constituents.
“I’ll be making more phone calls, writing more letters, arranging more meetings and doing whatever I possibly can,” Mr. Hinchey said.
“That’s the way it’s going to be done,” he added, referring to the need to reach out directly to agency officials. “That’s what I am going to do now that they have eliminated these earmarks.”