Quantifying the Earmark Scene

Posted February 13, 2008 at 6:35pm

Every club has its benefits. For members of the Appropriations committees, the benefits include the ability to dole out to themselves vastly larger sums of money for earmarked projects than to their rank-and-file brethren.

While it always has been clear that appropriators and other senior Members of Congress can deliver more federal money to their districts, the new earmark disclosure rules for the first time offer a way to calculate the precise cash benefit that a Congressional district receives when its Representative is a prominent Member of Congress.

According to a database assembled by Taxpayers for Common Sense that compiles earmarks passed in 2007, the average Member of the House was able to secure, on their own, about $4 million worth of earmarks for their district.

A member of the Appropriations Committee in the House fetched, on average, more than five times that amount — $22 million — on their own.

In the Senate, the difference is even more dramatic. Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee averaged $88.7 million in solo earmarks; non-Appropriations Members reeled in on average $10.4 million in solo projects (although that average is dragged down somewhat by Senators who abstain from requesting earmarks).

The numbers highlight the dynamics of a process that some on and off Capitol Hill argue has spiraled out of control, last year’s earmark transparency reforms notwithstanding. And their release comes as conservative House Republicans try to force a fresh debate on the issue by calling for a moratorium on new earmarks.

“The disparity is too large,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), an appropriator who pulled in a below-average $2.4 million worth of solo earmarks last year but racked up $61.8 million through collaborative efforts with his colleagues. “It’s obvious that senior Members will get more, but there has to be more common sense.”

The TCS database includes a description of each project, the spending levels approved by the House, the Senate and in the final bill, and the names of the Member or Members who requested the project.

Steve Ellis, vice president for programs at TCS, said the database proves what everyone has long believed about Congressional spending: “It is not an egalitarian system in Congress. The powerful get first dibs on projects and everybody else gets table scraps. They allow vulnerable Members to get more table scraps, but that’s how it works.”

The difference between projects pulled in by appropriators and those of their rank-and-file colleagues is still pronounced but less dramatic when counting all Member earmarks, including those lawmakers teamed up with other Members to make their request.

Some earmarks are sponsored by groups of Members working as a regional caucus or a state delegation, and at various points in the appropriations process, Members of Congress have had their names added to earmarks that were first sponsored by others.

Since success has many fathers, it is difficult in some cases to determine who should get credit for a particular earmark, and hard to judge a Member’s total take.

Thus Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who was appointed to take over Sen. Trent Lott’s seat when Lott retired at the end of last year, is credited with collecting $7 million in earmarks on his own. But when the projects he co-sponsored with other Members — notably Senate Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) — are factored in, Wicker is credited with a total earmark haul of $178 million, making him the House Member with the highest earmark total last year.

Not counting projects that were labeled as “presidential earmarks” by Congress because the White House requested them, the average Congressional district collected $22.8 million in total earmarks, which includes those sponsored by their Representative alone or with other Members of the House or Senate, according to the TCS database. But the 72 members of the Appropriations Committee each averaged $58.9 million worth of total projects, more than double the average of other House Members.

Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), an appropriator, said responsibility for the scale of earmarked spending rests squarely with President Bush, who presided over a six-year, GOP-driven boom in the process without a single veto threat. “We’ve had to come in and clean up the mess created by his party,” he said.

And he offered no apologies for his own success in bringing $37 million worth of solo projects — or $83 million in joint projects — home to his northwest Florida district.

“If the process is transparent, it’s OK,” he said. “I was asked to advocate for the people I represent, and that’s what I did.”

The two Democratic Senators from Washington state demonstrate the power of an Appropriations seat. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who is not an Appropriations member, had $14 million in solo earmarks in the 2008 omnibus bill and $163 million in total earmarks.

Sen. Patty Murray, who is an appropriator, brought in $141 million in solo earmarks and a total of $376 million.

Some sections of the omnibus bill were peppered with earmarks for Members of Congress facing tough re-election campaigns this year, but an analysis of the totals for the entire bill suggests this group had mixed success in garnering earmarks to help make the case for their re-election.

Of the House Democrat and Republican incumbents that Roll Call counts as facing the most competitive re-elections in 2008, Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) topped the list with $50 million, including joint projects. Doug Moore, his spokesman, calculated that $33.2 million of that sum is for projects on or related to Robins Air Force Base, the largest industrial complex in the state with a work force of more than 25,000.

Other top earmarkers on the endangered list include Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), with $43 million including joint projects; Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas), with $42 million in joint projects; and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), with $41 million in joint projects. Of this group, Lampson had the most solo projects, worth $15.2 million.

But he was outdone in that category by Kansas Democratic Rep. Nancy Boyda, who beat incumbent Republican Rep. Jim Ryun by fewer than 10,000 votes in 2006.

Boyda, whose race is a top priority for both parties in 2008, raked in $20.1 million in solo earmarks, and combined with other Members, her district received $38 million in earmarks in the 2008 omnibus bill.

By comparison, Rep. Dennis Moore, the five-term Democrat in the neighboring district to the east, got $1.7 million in solo earmarks and just more than $8 million in total earmarks.

Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Republican member of the Appropriations Committee whose district borders Boyda’s to the south, collected $29.8 million in solo earmarks and $66.2 million total.

Boyda spokeswoman Shanan Guinn said the earmarks are evidence that “Nancy is working hard for her district.” Guinn also said Boyda is a major advocate of transparency in the process and that the TCS database would not have been possible without the disclosure requirements passed by Democrats last year.

Not all vulnerable Members fared as well. For example, Rep. John Yarmuth, a freshman Democrat from Kentucky, brought in a total of $14.3 million in earmarks for his district, which is somewhat below the $22 million average for a non-appropriator, and near the bottom of the vulnerable list.

But Yarmuth spokesman Stuart Perelmuter points out that the Congressman ranks much higher among the vulnerables if you count only the earmarks that the Member pursued alone. Yarmuth gathered $8.6 million in solo earmarks, nearly double the take of the average Member, and fifth-highest among the Members that Roll Call considers vulnerable.

“Eight million is a pretty good list to have single-handedly,” Perelmuter argued. “We are thrilled and we know the city [Louisville] is thrilled.”

Comparing the “solo and other Members” category also means Yarmuth is judged in part by the performance of the state’s two Republican Senators, who may not have an interest in helping a freshman Democrat win projects.

Among the endangered incumbents, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) also faired poorly, bringing her district $1.8 million in solo earmarks and $4.3 million in total earmarks, both of which place her near the bottom of the group — though Schmidt spokesman Barry Bennett said the Congresswoman does not belong in the category of vulnerable incumbents because her district is safely Republican.

Bennett said Schmidt only requests earmarks for local government needs, not for for-profit enterprises — “it has to be first requested by the county and the city” — so “we don’t make that many requests.”

Bennett also pointed out that the district received an $11 million presidential earmark in the omnibus bill for a local flood control project and that Schmidt lobbied then-Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman for that money. Schmidt replaced Portman when he left Congress to take over as U.S. trade representative.

Other vulnerable Members who brought in less total earmark money than average include Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Zack Space (D-Ohio), though Space did have $4.7 million in solo earmarks, which was slightly better than the average Member.

After logging thousands of hours of its staff time to assemble the database, TCS is posting it on its Web site for public use.

“We always ‘knew’ certain things — that appropriators got more earmarks, that vulnerable Members got more, that the Defense bill has always gotten a huge number of earmarks,” Ellis said. “Now you can actually track that number. Now, for the first time we can definitively say that Representative X got Y amount of money.”