The new money trail: Tracking spending in an earmark-free world

Mark Barrett
Asheville Citizen-Times

Pork barrel goes underground, but can still be found

Just because a pig is not standing right in front of you doesn’t mean you can’t sniff it out.

A move by Congress in 2011 to end earmarks means senators and House members who want to bring home the bacon have to be more creative, but it certainly has not stopped the process.

It also means reporters have to be more creative in locating pork barrel themselves.

That was the message from the “The new money trail: Tracking spending in an earmark-free world” session with speakers Sarah Cohen of Duke University, David Fallis of The Washington Post and Ron Nixon of The New York Times.

Tricks of the pork trade nowadays include legislation making specifications for something the government must buy so specific that only one supplier can provide it.

An example is a story Nixon’s colleague Eric Lichtblau wrote earlier this year about a budget specification inserted by Rep. Hal Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, that essentially required the military to get a helicopter part from a company in Rogers’ home state of Kentucky even though a competitor makes a similar one that costs much less.

It begins, “In the 1980s, the military had its infamous $800 toilet seat. Today, it has a $17,000 drip pan.”

Another is sending letters or otherwise leaning on the executive branch to spend on a particular product or project, which Nixon called “lettermarking.” Sometimes the committee will just insert language in its report suggesting that a department look at an issue.

Tracking these down can be work, but it can be done.

Reading budget bills is a basic step, Cohen said. But don’t forget the committee reports that accompany them. They can direct spending that is only broadly described in the actual bill.

Congress is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, but the executive branch is not. File FOIA requests with a federal agency for copies of letters and emails from your congressman to their secretary’s and legislative liason offices, speakers in another session suggested. 

Knowing what a legislator owns, where his or her spouse works, who the legislator’s friends are, and what their kids or other relatives do for a living is crucial, Fallis said.

There are several places online where a reporter can get the financial disclosure forms listing their assets that legislators are required to file each year and the same is true of campaign donations. 

Examples of questionable spending include directing funds to a nonprofit where a relative works or that benefits the client of a lobbying firm that employs a relative, Fallis said.

The Washington Post found instances in which earmarks made before the ban built a parking garage a block away from a senator’s property or improved a street in front of a representative’s house.

Nixon suggested also looking at changes to tax law. 

“You can insert a sentence into the tax code and save someone billions of dollars,” he said.

A couple of makers of toy wooden arrows in Oregon benefited from such a change that their congressmen backed, Nixon said.

Most of the discussion was about issues on the federal level, but, “Basically the same process goes on in your legislature,” Cohen said.

 State policies vary, but at least the budget bills and committee reports tend to be shorter and thus easier to comb through than the federal ones are.

Cohen said a good source is also “press releases from members themselves. They have done it for a reason and they want to brag about it.”

Sometimes a pig is standing right in front of you.

Links and resources

The Washington Post series is online at washingtonpost.com/capitol-assets.

Ron Nixon’s story about supposedly fiscally conservative freshmen Republican legislators pulling in pork is at nytimes.com/2011/07/20/us/politics/20freshmen.html.

Opensecrets.org, legistorm.com and the Clerk of the U.S. have financial disclosure forms for members.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, taxpayer.net, has a database of traditional earmarks from before the ban and is a good resource on this issue in general.

Federal legislation and other congressional records are at Thomas.loc.gov.

My email address is mbarrett@citizen-times.com.