Congressional Earmarks Flow Near Lawmakers’ Property

More than $300 million in taxpayer money has gone to projects within two miles of property owned by 33 members of Congress, according to a Washington Post investigation.

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A congressman from Georgia secured $6.3 million in taxpayer funds to replenish the beach about 900 feet from his island vacation cottage, while a Michigan representative earmarked $486,000 to add a bike lane to a bridge within walking distance of her home.

Congressional earmarks remain legal after the Senate last week struck down a bill that would have outlawed them. Under the ethics rules Congress has written itself, earmarks are not only legal, but undisclosed.

Earmarks have long been controversial, as they tend to favor campaign donors or constituents. The Post’s review is the first systemic effort to examine the alignment of earmarks with lawmakers’ private interests.

The Washington Post analyzed public records on the holdings of all 535 members of Congress, comparing them with earmarks members had sought for pet projects, most of them since 2008.

The Post uncovered appropriations for work done in close proximity to commercial and residential real estate owned by lawmakers or their families. The review also found 16 lawmakers who sent tax dollars to colleges, companies, or community programs where family members worked as salaried employees or served as board members

In interviews, lawmakers said their earmarks were only fulfilling requests brought to them by the city and state officials they represented. Many earmarks go toward building safer roads, nicer neighborhoods, or improving local economies. Questions about the nearby locations of their own holdings are irrelevant, they said, denying any conflict. Any potential personal benefit was said to be either nonexistent, minimal, or secondary to the needs of the public.

Lawmakers are required to certify that they have no financial stake in the actions they take, but in all of the cases examined by the Post, not one lawmaker mentioned that he or she owned property near an earmarked project or had a relative employed by an institution receiving earmark funds. That is because congressional rules don’t require them to do so, nor do the rules address proximity.

The two chambers of Congress have different standards for defining conflicts. In the Senate, members must certify that neither they nor their “immediate” family members have a financial interest, while in the House, only lawmakers and their spouses are covered, not children or parents.

While lawmakers insist the earmarks are in the public’s interest, not theirs, the secrecy cloaking their actions has led many to question the veracity of that claim.

Earmark decisions are made behind closed doors in committee rooms, rarely debated on the floor of the House or Senate, and the more powerful the member of Congress, the more likely he or she will be able to get an earmark through.

It wasn’t until 2007, after much public criticism, that Congress made changes requiring lawmakers to put their names next to earmarks they sought. Last year, as public outcry continued, Congress imposed a two-year moratorium on new earmarks, which the Senate last week extended another year.

But some contend that earmarks have simply gone underground. Six months into the supposed moratorium, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) identified over 100 special spending provisions in a House defense bill that she said were clearly earmarks, prompting lawmakers to strip the provisions from the final bill.

However, McCaskill has found little support on Capitol Hill for a permanent ban on earmarks. Only 12 lawmakers have signed onto her bill thus far. Lawmakers interviewed by the Post defended their earmarks, even those that clearly benefited them directly.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Knapp at staff.writers@wallstcheatsheet.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Damien Hoffman at editors@wallstcheatsheet.com