Courtesy Purdue University Calumet
At Purdue University, a researcher watches a 3-D visualization of gas mixing inside a furnace. The project, which has helped the steel industry, is funded by a Visclosky earmark.
At Purdue University, a researcher watches a 3-D visualization of gas mixing inside a furnace. The project, which has helped the steel industry, is funded by a Visclosky earmark. Courtesy Purdue University Calumet
Earmark control seems to have risen to the top of the can't-do list in Congress. Despite new rules on transparency, and loud criticism of such projects as the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska, the most recent spending bill went to the White House stuffed with more than 8,600 provisions targeted for lawmakers' pet projects.
One big reason: Voters love what earmarks deliver — and lawmakers know it.
The earmark trail of Rep. Peter Visclosky, a Democrat from Indiana, winds through Northwest Indiana. Just outside Chicago, his district is one of many areas that receive earmark money. It's in what long-time residents call the "Region," rust-belt country once defined by auto plants and steel mills along Lake Michigan. Thousands of industrial jobs vanished over the past 25 years and the economy hasn't recovered.
Politically, the region is a Democratic stronghold in rural, Republican Indiana. Visclosky was first elected 25 years ago and got a seat on the House Appropriations Committee seven years later. He chairs the subcommittee that controls energy and water-project spending and is also on the defense subcommittee.
Visclosky is known as a thoughtful appropriator who is strong on the often-neglected job of oversight. But House Appropriations is also earmark central. The watchdogs at Taxpayers for Common Sense peg him as one of the top 10 earmarkers in the House. Following where the money went provided some interesting insight.
The Flood Control Project
The first stop on the earmark trail is where Northcote Avenue crosses over the Little Calumet River, between the city of Hammond and the town of Munster. Next to the bridge is a new dirt levee — paid for by part of an earmark.
Visclosky has been earmarking for "Little Cal" flood control for years. Last year, he put $14.7 million in the pot. But the money didn't get spent fast enough at the Northcote Avenue bridge and last fall, the river flooded.
Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott said heavy rain fell for four days straight. "You couldn't even see the bridge," he said. "It was really sad. I mean, you could literally see the water up to the middle of the windows on all the houses."
He pointed out new flood walls on the Munster side of the river, where flood damage was worse.
McDermott is also Democratic chairman of Lake County. He said "Congressman Pete" is politically invulnerable and that a powerful reason is projects like this one. "People respect him so much," McDermott said. "It's just almost sacrilege to challenge him."
This may be true. Visclosky has run for Congress and won 13 times. Only once did he win less than 65 percent of the vote.
Helping Big Steel
Stop two on the earmark trail is Purdue University's Calumet campus, where a Visclosky earmark has helped the steel industry.
Big Steel never actually left the region. The mills make more steel than ever; they just use far fewer workers. Right now, Northwest Indiana leads the nation in steel production. Visclosky's earmark finances a university program to analyze and improve steel production methods.
Professor Chenn Zhou, head of the program, noted that aside from Purdue, there are "not too many people doing this in the country." She said steelmakers nationwide bring their problems to Purdue.
The technology looks like a video game on steroids. In a demonstration, Zhou and her assistants compared the efficiency of a conventional coke-fired blast furnace against new technology that uses a mix of coke, which is a substance distilled from coal, and pulverized coal.
We put on 3-D glasses and watched as a virtual blast furnace appeared on a big screen. The furnace glided toward us, and we "floated" past clumps of fuel inside. The appeal of the simulation is hard to miss, since a real blast furnace would destroy any instruments used to measure what went on inside.
Just last month, the program received an additional $4.7 million — courtesy of an earmark from Visclosky.
Visclosky visited the center last October and received his own demonstration. "He told us, 'Even I understand this process now,'" Zhou said. "And he said it's really, really useful."
Attracting Business, Keeping Employees
The third stop on the earmark trail led to the Purdue Technology Center. The center is an "incubator" for high-tech startup firms, with funding provided by Visclosky.
One tenant is NuVant Systems, founded in 1999 by chemistry professor Eugene Smotkin.
NuVant focuses on portable fuel cells, especially portable fuel cells that use liquid fuels. Older technology is derived from more mainstream hydrogen-air fuel cells. NuVant is developing lighter systems that are more portable and more efficient with liquid fuels such as methanol. The firm has a long-standing working relationship with the Defense Department.
Smotkin said NuVant moved from Chicago to Indiana because he got a federal Small Business Innovation Research grant that the state of Indiana offered to match. The Purdue Technology Center built a laboratory for NuVant to lease.
After NuVant moved in, Smotkin asked for and two Visclosky earmarks for the company, one from the Pentagon and the other from the Energy Department. The earmarks changed NuVant's standing in the industry.
Smotkin said he used to lose workers to big corporations all the time. "I would have students halfway through their Ph.D. program come to me and say, 'Gene, I got this job offer from General Motors. I can't turn this down.'"
Thanks to the earmark money, "I was able to offer very good health plans, and pay salaries that are some of the best in Indiana," he said.
And now, even in this economy, NuVant is hiring.
The Trouble With Earmarks
By this time, it began to seem there was little to no objection to Visclosky's earmarks in all of Northwest Indiana. A stop at the Post-Tribune, one of the local papers, to talk with editorial page editor Rich James bolstered that impression.
"Neither this newspaper nor the people here are telling Pete Visclosky to keep our money in Washington," he said. "No. That would be foolish."
But James said that right now, Visclosky is actually in a bit of earmark trouble.
Quite a few of the earmarks by Visclosky and other House appropriators have something in common: lobbying by The PMA Group, based in Northern Virginia. Federal agents raided PMA last fall, apparently in a probe of earmarks and campaign cash.
The firm specialized in earmarks and several lawmakers have ties to it. Visclosky is connected by a former top aide who became a PMA lobbyist, and by campaign money. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, PMA donors over the years have given Visclosky $212,200. The next closest donor group is the United Auto Workers, at $100,000.
After the raid and news reports about PMA, Visclosky got rid of $18,000 — the amount he had received since 2005 from three questionable PMA donors. His campaign donated the funds to the federal Treasury.
James said the PMA problems didn't go unnoticed back home: "The PMA thing kind of was out of character for him. I don't want to say he's tainted, but he's always been above that."
Then again, James said, "If you were to ask me is that association going to hurt his chances for re-election — no."
Washington Skeptics Vs. Local Voters
Finally, the earmark trail leads back to Capitol Hill. At Taxpayers for Common Sense, Steve Ellis said taxpayers will come to trust congressional earmarks only "if we actually had a comprehensive merit-based system, where we were figuring out what are the best and most important things to spend our taxpayer dollars on, not the politically most important."
Visclosky keeps an extremely low profile, which is not unusual for an appropriator. His spokesman said his office "would have to decline" comment for this story.
But for every earmark skeptic such as Ellis, there are thousands of voters who seem to be grateful for what their lawmakers do locally with federal tax dollars.
One night in Indiana, the waiter at a restaurant asked what prompted the visit. That spurred a discussion about Visclosky, and the waiter said what everyone seems to say: The congressman looks out for his district.
He summed up with a sentiment this reporter has never heard a 20-something express for any politician: "Pete is awesome!"