Raleigh, N.C. — Politicians' practice of putting earmarks in the budget with names attached for pet projects was banned in 2010, but many watchdog groups say earmarks aren't really gone, just redefined and sometimes underground.
This year alone, the Pentagon received hundreds of millions of dollars from lawmakers for things it didn't request. For instance, lawmakers added money to keep making an Army tank, which the Army is phasing out, because lawmakers want to keep jobs at the factories that make the tank.
“Now it’s done outside the public view. It’s not transparent,” said North Carolina State University political science professor Andy Taylor. “We just don’t know how, in many ways, they are pulling the strings.”
Earmarks became a dirty word in Washington, so lawmakers banned them. The new concern is that earmarks always had a name attached to them. The new way of doing business is harder to track. Lawmakers can ask for a programmatic request, which is essentially money added to the budget for a program. The money can get added without the lawmaker's name being publicly attached to it.
Fourth District Congressman David Price says he has made hundreds of programmatic requests in the past year. He says it's his job to advocate for his district and that he's open about anything he requests. He also sits on the Appropriations Committee and, when there were earmarks, his office published those requests on his website.
“If I’m not advocating for a certain need in Cary, who do we think is going to advocate?” Price said.
Under the earmark system, the WRAL Investigates team found requests on Price's website for local universities, especially North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There were also requests for an arts center in Fuquay-Varina and a Triangle Jewish Federation.
Price says he prefers the accountability of the earmark system. However, any programmatic requests he's made since then have not been published on his website. Meanwhile, California Congressman Sam Farr has posted all of his programmatic requests online.
Some watchdog groups are pushing for more transparency.
“For the general public, it’s not an even playing field in Washington,” said Bill Allison, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington watchdog group. “They make things convoluted to try and hide what they are doing, but money talks in Washington and if you’re a taxpayer, that should be something that concerns you.”
Allison says news releases may provide clues, but still no paper trail.
For instance, 1st District Congressman G.K. Butterfield celebrated a $128,000 grant for Elizabeth City State University for cellular research. His office said he participated in the check presentation but did not help secure the funding
The ban on earmarks is also leading to other creative ways to find cash. One example is commemorative coins. From Girl Scouts to five-star generals, requests are on the rise to make the coins for nonprofits to sell. There's no taxpayer expense as long as collectors buy enough to recoup the cost, but it's a way to get money back to constituents, and the government is on the hook if they don't sell.
“When you ban something, members will find a way to get around that ban,” Allison said.
The Sunlight Foundation also looked at another recent move. Lawmakers introduced 1,200 tariff suspensions this year on imported products for companies.
Congresswoman Renee Ellmers was among the members who wrote to the speaker of the House to support the suspensions. Lawmakers argued the tariff suspensions would help businesses invest more and hire more. Watchdog groups argue these are moves to watch, earmarks or no earmarks.
“What we have is members finding ways to bring home the bacon, to bring money to their districts. Some are contributors,” Allison said.
There have been proposals to bend the rules on the earmark ban recently, but they haven’t gotten any traction.
Earmarks vs. programmatic requests
An earmark request is a request for a specific project to be funded within a particular programmatic account. Even when they were allowed, the project in question had to meet the parameters for that account as set forth by the administration. For example, a member of Congress could not have requested funding for agricultural research through the account that funds bus transit.
A programmatic request conveys the member’s views about the funding level for an overall program or account. It is usually made in the context of the president’s budget request (for example: fully fund the president’s request, provide more than the request or provide less than the request).
Before the earmark ban, members of Congress made earmark requests and programmatic requests. Now, they can only make programmatic requests.