Making Earmarks Pay: Lawmakers Help Themselves to Congressional Pork

For members of Congress, the only thing better than getting "pork" for the folks back home is getting a slice of that pork for themselves.

Pork, also known as earmarks, describes the long-standing Congressional practice of steering tax money back to home districts to pay for expensive, constituent-pleasing projects.

But in recent years lawmakers started taking pork a step further. Instead of just using earmarks to keep voters happy, some members of Congress have found ways to benefit personally.

Some arranged for improvements to areas near property they owned; others sent money to organizations they would later go to work for after leaving office.

Of course, none of this is illegal.

Congress literally makes its own rules regarding the ethics of earmarks. Still, much of what goes on looks bad.

Take the case of former Rep. William Delahunt, D-MA. The seven-term Congressman retired last year and launched his own lobbying firm in Boston.

Before long the small coastal town of Hull had hired Delahunt for $15,000 a month to help out with a wind energy project.

Coincidentally, Delahunt had set aside a $1.7 million earmark for the Hull project back in 2009. The bulk of his fee - 80% - is being paid from the same earmark money.

And that's not all. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has paid Delahunt's firm at least $40,000 to lobby for a casino. As a congressman, Delahunt sent the tribe earmarks worth $400,000.

Delahunt also has done work for Quincy, MA, lobbying for a downtown redevelopment project. Back in 2008, he was sending Quincy $2.4 million in earmarks.

"I cannot recall such an obvious example of a member of Congress allocating money that went directly into his own pocket," Barney Keller, communications director for theconservative group Club for Growth, told The New York Times. "It speaks to why members of Congress shouldn't be using earmarks."

While Delahunt may be the most blatant example of a lawmaker enjoying generous helpings of Congressional pork, he's not the only one.
Watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) turned up seven more former members of Congress engaged in lobbying for groups for whom they'd secured earmarks while in office.

Altogether, CREW said, the seven "earmarked more than $70 million to the organizations they went on to represent, and have pulled in a total of nearly $1.9 million from their work."

The list includes both Democrats and Republicans. The most recognizable name on the CREW list is Sen. Trent Lott, R-MS, who once held the position of Senate majority leader among other leadership posts.

Lott resigned in December 2007, avoiding a law that would have prevented him from lobbying for two years. The limit as of 2007 was just one year.

Lott launched his firm in a partnership with former Sen. John Breaux, D-LA, in January 2008 and quickly landed Northrop Grumman Corp. (NYSE: NOC) as a client.

Lott had earmarked $1.6 million for the defense industry titan in the 2008 budget. Between 2008 and 2010 the Breaux Lott Leadership Group collected $1.25 million from Northrop.

But ethical issues with Congressional earmarks go beyond even the lobbying shenanigans.

According to an investigation by the Washington Post, 33 lawmakers have in the past several years secured $300 million in earmarks for public projects within two miles of their property.

Most of the earmarks paid for such things as road improvements and beach replenishment that likely enhance their property values.

The Post investigation also found 16 members of Congress that found ways to direct federal money to entities associated with family members.

Although Congressional rules require lawmakers to certify that they will not personally benefit from any earmark they propose, the rule is so narrow it almost never applies.

The whole practice of earmarks has become so unseemly that Congress actually felt compelled to impose a two-year moratorium last year.

Earmarks By Any Other Name

Not surprisingly, however, lawmakers found ways around the moratorium.

In its first six months, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, said she found 100 suspicious spending provisions in just one House defense bill. The provisions were obviously earmarks, she said.

Congress also has shuffled money around in other ways to preserve its beloved pork. The primary earmark substitute has been special funds created by redirecting money from other projects in the budget.

"We thought we'd gotten rid of earmarks," Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, told The New York Times. "But it looks like Congress has just moved on to other methods that are less transparent than the old way, like creating these slush funds."

Although Congressional earmarks do often fund needed projects, the current system allows for too many abuses. Some in Congress would like to fix it, but they are few.

"There is little arguing that stories like these, of which there seems to be no end, cast a shadow over Congress at a time in our history that would necessitate the utmost in trustworthiness with respect to fiscal matters," Rep. Jeff Flake, R-AZ, wrote in a letter last week to House Republican leaders. "They allow for the appearance of impropriety that demands remedy."

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About the Author

David Zeiler, Associate Editor for Money Morning at Money Map Press, has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including 18 spent at The Baltimore Sun. He has worked as a writer, editor, and page designer at different times in his career. He's interviewed a number of well-known personalities - ranging from punk rock icon Joey Ramone to Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Over the course of his journalistic career, Dave has covered many diverse subjects. Since arriving at Money Morning in 2011, he has focused primarily on technology. He's an expert on both Apple and cryptocurrencies. He started writing about Apple for The Sun in the mid-1990s, and had an Apple blog on The Sun's web site from 2007-2009. Dave's been writing about Bitcoin since 2011 - long before most people had even heard of it. He even mined it for a short time.

Dave has a BA in English and Mass Communications from Loyola University Maryland.

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