Have Earmarks Really Earned Their Bad Rep?

Funding "earmarks" are the target of calls for reform in the House. They put a great deal of power in the hands of committee chairmen. But not all in Congress agree that the system should be dismantled.

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For years, convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff was, by most Washington measures, a success. He had access to powerful people and he could get special treatment for his clients, sometimes in the form of targeted federal money, or earmarks. This type of relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists has led some in Congress to call for reform in the way earmarks make their way into legislation.

We have two stories on this. One looking at the relationship between one particularly powerful member of Congress and lobbyists seeking earmarks. But first, here's NPR's Andrea Seabrook.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

You've probably heard a lot in recent weeks about what's wrong with the business of lobbying, the favors lobbyists get in return for big donations to congressional campaigns and committees. But what you may not have heard as much about is the way lawmakers are able to divert federal money toward a lobbyist or client. It's done, says Arizona Republican Congressman Jeff Flake, with earmarks.

Representative JEFF FLAKE (Republican, Arizona): We know from the Duke Cunningham case that earmarks are really the currency of corruption.

SEABROOK: For example, Flake says, after convicted former congressman Randy Duke Cunningham accepted some $2 million in bribes from defense contractors, he was able to deliver about $90 million in federal funds back to them by earmarking the money in defense spending bills.

FLAKE: It's simply too easy, and too inviting, and too many shades of gray, as well, when you have lobbyists coming forward looking for earmarks.

SEABROOK: Now, most members of Congress, including Tennessee Republican Zach Wamp, say there's nothing inherently wrong with earmarks.

Representative ZACH WAMP (Republican, Tennessee): You know, I will defend until my death the ability of the Congress to direct the funding or to earmark projects. Why? Because that's the power of the purse, and under the Constitution it rests solely with the legislative branch.

SEABROOK: But, like Flake, Wamp says what must be shut down is the ability of lawmakers, especially powerful leaders and committee chairmen, to just slide earmarks into bills at the last minute, when the rest of Congress, Wamp says, has no chance to object.

WAMP: It gives the power to a select few people that are either on the conference committee or they're chairman of the committees. They have a tremendous amount of power, because they can insert things at the very last minute, a la the bridge in Alaska that gets on everybody's nerves.

SEABROOK: And that's where many rank and file lawmakers believe earmarks get out of control, when they become an arm of the leadership, and even a way to enforce discipline in a party. For example, when House Republican leaders were trying to get the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, passed, a key priority at the White House, Flake says they were openly taking orders for earmarks from lawmakers who, in return, agreed to vote for CAFTA.

Most chairmen and leaders don't agree that they're the worst offenders when it comes to earmarks. House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis of California says last year he received more than 10,000 requests for individual special projects in just one bill, the one that funds the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services. And those requests came from 417 members of Congress. In other words, only 15 or so members of the House didn't request an earmark in that bill. Despite that, Lewis says the current Washington earmark scandal is overblown. He says just because earmarks have been misused doesn't mean they should be eliminated.

Representative JERRY LEWIS (Republican, California): One member of Congress who raises his hand and then violates the law, takes the bribe, should not reflect the entire Congress. And one bad lobbyist, at least one, shouldn't suggest that the entire system is some way corrupt.

SEABROOK: Then again, if Congress has the power of the purse, it's the Appropriations Committee that really controls the money and how it's spent. So people like Chairman Lewis only stand to lose power with earmark reform.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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