WASHINGTON — Connecticut’s congressional delegation has collectively submitted hundreds of earmark requests totaling more than $1 billion for fiscal year 2011.
The spending pleas range from relatively small line items, such as $75,000 for a fatherhood initiative that Rep. Chris Murphy submitted on behalf of a Danbury community program to more eye-popping sums such as the $160 million Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman are seeking for Pratt & Whitney to make 15 spare engines for the F-22A Raptor.
So-called “earmarks,” the special funding provisions that direct federal money to certain projects, may have become a pejorative word in some circles. And the public may be increasingly anxious about federal spending run amok.
But while Congress has moved to significantly reform the federal funding process, the new scrutiny and sour political climate hasn’t seriously dampened the congressional appetite for snagging federal funds.
Connecticut’s House and Senate members staunchly defend their spending requests, saying they are vital to protecting home-state interests and promoting economic growth. They say each request is carefully considered and heavily vetted, with only the most meritorious getting through.
“I won’t leave it up to bureaucrats in D.C. to advocate for those [projects] that will have big impacts on our communities,” said Murphy, a Democrat who hopes to get more than $60 million worth of federal funds for his 5th District. “I have encouraged Congress to tighten its budget … so there will be fewer dollars for just as many worthy projects this year, but that doesn’t mean I will stop fighting for economic development opportunities for the state.”
Critics say the earmark process is more influenced by political muscle than project merit. For example, House and Senate leaders typically get more earmarks than rank-and-file members. Vulnerable incumbents also usually fare well, since an extra few million in federal funding to brag about back home can help bolster their re-election bids.
But defenders of these spending provisions say that eliminating earmarks would just shift spending decisions to Executive Branch officials, who don’t necessarily know what the residents of Meriden or New Haven need. Lieberman and others also note that earmarks-even though they have gotten a lot of public attention-represent just a tiny slice of the federal budget, less than 1 percent of discretionary spending.
“Earmarks are a very small fraction of the federal budget,” so they do not really contribute to out of control spending, Lieberman said. He noted that the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse, and says he feels it is his representational duty to put in funding requests for needy constituents.
A spokesman for Dodd, Bryan DeAngelis, said the senator’s office receives hundreds of requests for federal money every year, and the staff carefully reviews each project to see if it will create jobs or provide important services to benefit constituents.
Lieberman and Dodd top the delegation’s spending request list with nearly $800 million each in specific appropriations, while Murphy and Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, are on the lower-end of the spending scale. (Lieberman also submitted funding requests for several national programs, asking, for example, for $50 million for the Teach for America program.) Many of the delegation’s requests are overlapping, as lawmakers seek to shore up the prospects of a request by signaling delegation-wide support. But the range of spending requests reflects the scale of power in Congress, with senators and House leaders like Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, and Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, likely to channel a larger pot of money back home because of their clout.
It’s nearly impossible to say how the sums sought by Connecticut lawmakers stack up against other members of Congress, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that has fought for greater transparency and limits on earmarks. While lawmakers now have to make their spending requests public, they do so in different formats. And there’s no central database, making it hard to tally up and rank all 535 members of the House and Senate, Ellis noted.
Last month, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved a bill to create a searchable online database of all House and Senate earmark requests, with additional information about the project’s intended beneficiary and updates about which ones get funded. As Ellis’ group has described it, the bill would give taxpayers “cradle-to-grave knowledge of all these pet projects.”
Lieberman, chair of that panel, voted in favor of bill. But it may not be a priority for this Congress, as lawmakers scramble to finish an already packed agenda before the fall campaigns.
Democrats have already significantly revamped the appropriations process. Since the 111th Congress began, lawmakers have had to post all their earmark requests on their websites, listing the amount requested and the justification. In the House, leaders have also trimmed back to total federal dollars that can be devoted to earmarks and instituted a ban on all earmarks for for-profit companies.
House Republicans earlier this year called for a complete moratorium on earmarks, which most of their rank-and-file members are abiding by. But it expires at the end of this year, and it’s unclear what GOP leaders would do if they win control of the House in the November elections. Republicans oversaw an explosion in earmarks when they were in power (disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff once described the appropriations committees as “earmark favor factories”). But these spending provisions have tarnished both parties.
Ellis said the reforms, while not enough, have had an impact. He said the GOP ban in the House has led to a general decrease in earmarks in that chamber, although because many spending bills remain in limbo, it’s too early to make a definitive assessment. Plus, the Senate has not been as eager as the House to limit these provisions. For instance, senators are still free to seek earmarks for for-profit companies.
Dodd and Lieberman have both done so. In addition to the Pratt & Whitney funds, for example, they are also hoping to snag $20 million so Electric Boat can put unmanned vehicles into its submarines. And among other requests, Lieberman has asked for funding for several drug companies, including nearly $10 million for New Haven’s Keren Pharmaceuticals to develop a new way to combat strains of pandemic flu.
Lieberman said his office has trimmed its request list in light of the new attention to earmarks. “We’ve cut some out along the way that we thought wouldn’t stand up in this climate,” he said. His staff takes a closer look at requests from back home, he said, so “you’re not going to be embarrassed by the fact that you asked for it.”
Lieberman said he also conveys a new message to supplicants in Connecticut. “We tell people at home that it’s getting harder and harder” to get earmarks approved, he said.
In the wake of the reforms, the delegation also drafted a guide for interest groups seeking federal funds, explaining how the process works and what information they have to provide.
“It used to be that someone would send you a sentence or two [about why they wanted federal money] and you submitted it like that,” said Josh Zembik, a spokesman for Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. “Now, there are all these requirements. It’s a much more cumbersome process.”
But a better one, he added. The new rules have created a more streamlined, smarter approach to seeking such funds. For example, Zembik said lawmakers try to determine exactly how much federal money is needed for a project and how much they can realistically get, so instead of asking for $10 million, they may seek $300,000.
“This isn’t John McCain’s old pork list,” Zembik said, referring to the Arizona senator who is a leading critic of earmarks. “These are good projects.”
He cited, for example, the $750,000 that Courtney recently secured in a House spending bill to help the town of Sprague to improve a seniors’ housing center. The funds would, among other things, make the facility wheelchair accessible, so that disabled residents can get into the building from all parking areas, which is currently not possible, Zembik said.
Other delegation members’ lists are replete with worthy-sounding projects, such as funds to reduce youth violence, to foster cutting-edge university research, or to bolster the state’s energy technology sector.
DeLauro, for example, is seeking $2.28 million for the University of Connecticut to develop animal vaccines and diagnostics to help control and prevent diseases and $2.4 million for the Nature Conservancy in New Haven to collect and analyze data on climate change. Himes is asking for $500,000 for the Sound Marine Skills in Branford to help increase production of soft-shell clams, which he says will help support Connecticut’s maritime industry. And Larson’s list includes $330,000 for Bristol to help improve flood mitigation, as well as $4 million for an effort by the University of Hartford, working with other public and private manufacturing partners, to develop unmanned military technology.
Ellis said lawmakers now look for a “sweet spot” in the appropriations process. “It’s like Goldilocks,” he said. “You don’t want to ask for too little. You don’t want to ask for too much. You want to ask for just the right amount.”
Still, he and others said some of the Connecticut delegation’s requests were likely to get scaled way back, given the heightened scrutiny of federal spending and tough political climate in Washington.
“There’s a lot of wishful thinking going on here,” Ellis said of the long lists submitted by lawmakers like Lieberman and Larson.
Lieberman, for one, didn’t argue with that. “You have to assume that you’re not going to get most of them,” he said.