ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And from banks wanting to give back government money, we now turn to members of Congress who just can't get enough - government money, that is, in the form of earmarks. The new spending bill is stuffed with 8,600 of them. One big reason Congress hasn't reined in the special provisions is that voters love them, so long as the money is coming into their district. NPR's Peter Overby has been tracking some of that congressional earmark money. He followed the earmark trail to northwest Indiana and the district of Congressman Peter Visclosky.
PETER OVERBY: Long time residents call this corner of Indiana, The Region. Just outside Chicago, it's the industrial Democratic stronghold in a rural Republican state. It's rustbelt country. Steel mills used to dominate the landscape along Lake Michigan and the job market as well. That changed 25 years ago. The economy hasn't yet recovered.
Democrat Peter Visclosky has been on the House Appropriations Committee for 18 years. He's known as a thoughtful appropriator and strong on the often-neglected job of oversight. But the earmark watchdogs at Taxpayers for Common Sense also peg Visclosky as one of the top 10 earmarkers in the House.
So my first stop on the earmark trail was at a flood control project on the Little Calumet River in Hammond, Indiana. Next to a little two-lane bridge is a new dirt levee, it's part of the earmark.
Tom McDermott, the mayor of Hammond, met me there and told me about the flood last fall - four straight days of rain.
Mayor TOM McDERMOTT (Democrat, Hammond, Indiana): You couldn't even see the bridge. It was really sad. I mean, you can literally see the water, like, up to the middle of the windows on all the houses, like all through here.
OVERBY: We walked all over the earmark. McDermott pointed out new flood walls across from the levee.
Mayor McDERMOTT: Now, the reason this has to do with Congressman Pete is, Pete Visclosky has had this money waiting for us.
OVERBY: Just last year, Visclosky appropriated $14.7 million for Little Cal flood control. McDermott is also the Democratic chairman in Lake County. He says Visclosky sticks up for his people, their homes and their jobs.
Mayor McDERMOTT: People respect him so much. It's just almost sacrilege to challenge him.
OVERBY: Almost. Visclosky has run for Congress 13 times. One time, he got less than 65 percent of the vote.
But back to the earmark trail.
Stop two was Purdue University's Calumet campus, where a Visclosky earmark helps the steel industry. Big Steel is not gone from here. The mills make more steel than ever before, just with fewer workers. Northwest Indiana now leads the nation in steel production. Visclosky's earmark finances a university program to analyze and improve steel production methods. Professor Chenn Zhou is in charge of the program.
Dr. CHENN ZHOU (Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Purdue University): Not too many people doing this in the country.
OVERBY: Zhou says steelmakers all over the country bring their problems here. The technology looks like a video game on steroids. Research engineer Bin Wu gave me some 3-D glasses.
Mr. BIN WU (Research Engineer, Purdue University): You can choose this one or this one. I think this one is more comfortable.
OVERBY: And then we all stood there facing a screen, maybe five feet tall, as a virtual blast furnace appeared. The furnace glided toward us and we floated inside passed clumps of fuel, something obviously not possible in real life.
Mr. WU: So here comes the most important part.
OVERBY: It's about changing the fuel, going from pure coke to a mix of coke and pulverized coal, which is cheaper and cleaner. Last month, Congress gave the center another $4.7 million. I asked Chenn Zhou about Visclosky.
Did he ever come by to…
Dr. ZHOU: He was here October 7th. He told us, even I understand the process now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. ZHOU: And he sees it's really, really useful and what he said is very consistent with what the industry people told us, too.
OVERBY: Another rave review. And on to the third stop on the earmark trail. The Purdue Technology Center is an incubator for high-tech startup firms. Visclosky provided the funding.
One tenant is NuVant Systems, founded in 1999 by a chemistry professor, Eugene Smotkin.
Dr. EUGENE SMOTKIN (Founder, NuVant Systems): The focus of NuVant Systems is portable fuel cells, in particular, portable fuel cells that use liquid fuels.
OVERBY: NuVant is developing new lighter systems to replace old technology derived from the more mainstream hydrogen-air fuel cells. Smotkin's been working with the Defense department for years. He moved to Indiana because NuVant got a federal Small Business grant and the state of Indiana matched it. The Purdue Technology Center built a laboratory for NuVant to lease.
And then NuVant got two Visclosky earmarks of its own. They changed NuVant's standing in the industry. Smotkin says he used to lose workers to big corporations all the time.
Dr. SMOTKIN: I would have students halfway through their Ph.D. program suddenly come to me and say, Gene, look, I got a job offer at General Motors. I can't turn this down.
OVERBY: Thanks to the earmark money…
Dr. SMOTKIN: I was able to offer very good health plans and pay salaries that are some of the best in Indiana.
OVERBY: And even in this economy, NuVant is hiring.
Mr. RICH JAMES (Editorial Page Editor, Post-Tribune): Neither this newspaper nor the people here are telling Pete Visclosky to keep our money in Washington. No, that would be foolish.
OVERBY: Rich James is the editorial page editor at the Post-Tribune, one of the local papers. He said that right now, Visclosky is actually in a bit of earmark trouble.
Quite a few of the earmark recipients hired the same lobbyists, the PMA Group. The firm specialized in earmarks, and several lawmakers, including Visclosky, have ties to it. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, PMA donors have given Visclosky more campaign money than any other source. Federal agents raided PMA last fall. It seems to be part of a probe of earmarks and campaign cash. Visclosky recently got rid of $18,000, contributions from three questionable PMA donors. His campaign donated that much to the U.S. Treasury. And how much did the PMA story register in Indiana? Rich James says people noticed.
Mr. JAMES: The PMA thing kind of, was out of character for him, and I don't want to say he's tainted, but he's always been above that.
OVERBY: Then again…
Mr. JAMES: If you were to ask me, is that association going to hurt his chances for re-election, no.
OVERBY: Finally, the earmark trail led back to Capitol Hill. At Taxpayers for Common Sense, Steve Ellis said there's only one way for taxpayers to trust congressional earmarks.
Mr. STEVE ELLIS (Taxpayers for Common Sense): If we actually had a comprehensive, merit-based system, where we were figuring out what are the best and the most important things to be spending our taxpayer dollars on, not the most politically important.
OVERBY: Visclosky himself keeps an extremely low profile, not unusual for an appropriator. His spokesman said they would have to decline comment for this piece. But for every earmark skeptic, like Steve Ellis, there seem to be thousands of voters grateful for what their lawmakers do locally with federal dollars. One of my nights in Indiana, the waiter at the restaurant asked what brought me there. We started talking about Visclosky, and the waiter said what everyone seems to say: The congressman looks out for his district. Or as the waiter put it: Pete is awesome.
Peter Overby, NPR News.
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