Nearly 9,000 Earmark Requests in Omnibus

Posted December 17, 2007 at 6:51pm

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) has been a Member of Congress for only two months, but she is about to get her first earmark.

The massive 2008 omnibus appropriations bill released by Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) early Monday includes nearly 9,000 earmarks, including $234,000 requested by Tsongas for facilities and equipment at the Lowell Community Health Center in her district.

Tsongas’ request is one of dozens of earmarks that were not included in the individual appropriations bills that passed the House and Senate. While new House earmark rules would otherwise prohibit the addition of “air-dropped earmarks” added to a bill in conference, the omnibus spending bill is being treated as an amendment from the Senate, which is exempt from those rules.

So Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.), who like Tsongas was elected in a special election after the House deadline for earmark requests had passed, got several provisions added to the omnibus bill: $97,000 for the YWCA in Los Angeles to provide assistance to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence; $195,000 for a Los Angeles job training project run by the Watts Labor Community Action Committee; and $136,000 for the Long Beach Center for Working Families.

Though not in the original bills, Richardson’s and Tsongas’ earmarks had been floated before. The requests were included in the Labor, Health and Human Services conference report that was vetoed by President Bush in November. At the time, Tsongas said in a statement: “The Lowell Community Health Center is a vital source of care for tens of thousands of people in the city of Lowell and surrounding communities.”

The new Members were not the only ones getting new earmarks in the omnibus bill. The bill also includes $750,000 requested by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) for the National Law Enforcement Museum.

The legislation authorizing construction of the museum near the law enforcement monument in Washington, D.C., prohibited federal spending for the establishment or construction of the building, but a Democratic staffer said the projects have run into an unexpected need to relocate utility lines that was deemed appropriate for federal funding.

The request for the earmark was made in the spring in the course of the regular appropriations process, but it was left out of the Interior and Environment appropriations bill that passed the House on June 28.

All of the earmarks included in the bill will be reduced by 1.56 percent.

The omnibus was expected to be introduced late Monday night on the House floor as Obey amendments to the State and foreign operations appropriations bill that passed the House June 22, but Democrats said Republicans were actively involved in drafting it.

A Democratic leadership aide said, “This legislation is the product of bipartisan, bicameral negotiations.” The bill contains thousands of earmarks for members of each party, and Democrats note there are fewer earmarks than the last omnibus appropriations bill under a Republican Congress.

Some earmarks that had been approved in spending bills earlier this year also were dropped out of the omnibus. For example, the bill does not include an earmark the House had passed providing $1 million for the Interior Department to acquire land for the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in northeast West Virginia. The land is close to two properties owned by Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), a member of the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over Interior spending.

Obey also released with the omnibus text on Monday nearly 700 pages of spreadsheets detailing which Member had requested each of the earmarks in the bill. Since the legislation is not being handled as a conference report, he could have circumvented the disclosure requirement.

Even as they struggled to understand exactly what got thrown into the massive spending bill, anti-earmark activists expressed dismay at what appeared to be a rising number of the special projects and a process that will severely limit the time to examine them.

“It’s totally fiscally irresponsible to lump everything together in one spending bill and put it to a vote less than 24 hours later,” said David Williams, vice president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. They had all year to do this. It’s like a 10-year-old waiting until Sunday night to tell his parents he has a book report due Monday,” Williams said.

Taxpayers for Common Sense estimated that the final bill contained 8,983 earmarks worth more than $7.4 billion, though Vice President Steve Ellis warned “there are policy changes and provisions that we are just not going to find out about for months.”

Appropriations lobbyists, too, were scouring the bill, in most cases trying to determine how badly their clients’ projects got pinched. Others apparently had reason to celebrate: succeeding at the last minute in securing federal money despite falling short earlier in the year.

“I know there were a lot of folks trying to get earmarks in at the last minute after the process was closed,” said Greg Gill, a lobbyist with Cassidy & Associates. “If you know there’s only one remaining vehicle going this year, you’ve at least got to ask.”

While deadlines for earmark requests are long past, Michael Fulton, of GolinHarris, said shifting circumstances could help appropriations lobbyists make the case to shoehorn funding into the omnibus.

“Every project has its own story as to why its time is now as opposed to earlier in the year or next year,” he said. “What gets in there is what Congress decides are the most important projects to fund right now. Whether that’s fair or not is another question.”