House Members attempting to hide Ear Marks

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    Earmarks: Online hide and go seek

    By Jared Allen
    Posted: 04/07/09 08:02 PM [ET]

    Scores of House members are hiding their earmark requests in obscure corners of their official websites — sticking to the letter of their new rule while shunning its spirit.

    The lawmakers are interpreting an ambiguous rule liberally, disclosing their requests as required on their official congressional webpages but avoiding any prominent display.

    Under the new rule, touted by House Democrats and echoed by President Obama as a move toward a more open system of earmarking, members submitting spending requests for 2010 to the Appropriations Committee are required to create an active link on their webpages giving the details.

    But the requirement to create a link allows for great disparity, from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) down the line to the most junior member of the minority, in how and where those requests are displayed.

    The result was a hodgepodge, with some members of each party proudly displaying their requests while many others apparently did their utmost to keep their requests out of public view.

    Fullest disclosures included those made by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) — who is a notorious earmarker — and even Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), who as the last freshman Republican to be sworn in this year is arguably the lowest-ranking member of the House.

    All of these lawmakers created new categories on their main banners or menus for “Appropriations.”

    Many members, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the highest-ranking Republican to request any earmarks, opted to disclose theirs in press releases, either on their main page or a click away.

    The ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), could not display his requests any more prominently. They are his leading news item, nearly impossible to miss.

    But dozens of members’ requests could be found only by scouring their pages and trolling through any number of different categories, from “Issues” to “Legislation” to “District” to — in at least one case — “Other.” Viewers of these members’ pages would have to click three or more times to get the list of submitted projects, and that is assuming the website visitor knows where to look.

    According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, 71 lawmakers, not including those known to have rejected earmarks for at least this year, had failed to establish their links or created links that were simply not findable as of 1 p.m. Tuesday.

    The Hill reviewed hundreds of member pages, as did outside watchdog groups, after the Friday (later extended to Saturday) deadline to determine which members who appeared to comply with the letter of the law went the furthest to meet — or, conversely, to avoid — its intent.

    It takes three clicks to get from Rep. José Serrano’s (N.Y.) homepage to his project requests. Visitors to the site of the eighth-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee have to click on “Resources” under the main menu, then “Congressional and Legislative Resources,” and then choose the last item, “Funding Requests (FY2010).”

    That’s a different route but the same minimum number of clicks as on Rep. Joseph Crowley’s (D-N.Y.) site. To view Crowley’s earmark requests, visitors have to pick “7th District” on the main menu bar, then select “Local Issues,” then click the link to “Fiscal Year 2010 Appropriations Requests.”

    To get to Rep. Steven LaTourette’s (R-Ohio) funding request list, readers need to click on the “Issues” tab on his main menu, then scroll down past 17 other “issues” — including “Social Security,” “Great Lakes” and “Green Space Preservation,” to get to the last item, labeled “Other Issues.”

    Clicking on “Other Issues” brings up an introduction to LaTourette’s spending request links, grouped by federal agency.

    “In the past, member-directed funding requests — often known as earmarks — were sometimes done in secret and were often airdropped into bills at the last minute by members with substantial clout,” writes LaTourette, one of the newest Republicans to earn a spot on the Appropriations Committee, adding, “Fortunately, there is far more transparency and accountability now and the public can gauge whether funding requests made by their local officials and leaders, and submitted by their Representatives or Senators, have merit.”

    Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) also understands “the public’s dislike for the federal funding process,” according to his “Investing in Indiana” “Hot Link,” which explains Ellsworth’s “Straight Talk” on congressional earmarks, including the ones he requested, right on the site.

    It only takes two clicks to get to Ellsworth’s “FY 2010 8th District Project Requests.”

    Looking for requests made by Rep. Hal Rogers (Ky.), the third-ranking Republican appropriator? Try “On the Issues” from the main menu bar, then select “Economic Development and Job Creation.”

    A list of the “programs” that Rogers is “proud to support for 2010” can be viewed by clicking the link at the very bottom of a page containing a 588-word explanation of “Economic Development and Job Creation” that begins: “Upon graduating from Wayne County High School in 1955, I was forced to leave home in search for work in Cincinnati, Ohio.”

    Rep. Nita Lowey (N.Y.), the seventh-ranking Democrat on Appropriations, avoided creating one stop for her requests altogether, sprinkling a number of links to her submitted requests throughout her various pages of “Legislative Issues.”

    There are dozens of additional variations, showing no prejudice for party, power or committee assignments.

    There were also plenty of members, leaders included, who display their link close to the homepage, but use selective language in explaining where the link would take readers.

    Freshman Democrat Jim Himes (Conn.) took this route. Getting to his list requires clicking on his “Issues and Legislation” bar, then selecting “Budget Transparency.”

    The Speaker herself opted for a similar approach, putting her spending requests on her congressional office webpage under a visible but demure link titled “Community Funding Requests.”

    Almost no one used the term “earmark,” but Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) is one member who avoided the term “appropriations” altogether, labeling and even explaining his requests only as “Federal Funding.”

    “President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are committed to providing our citizens with a transparent and honest approach to federal funding requests,” the “Federal Funding” page reads. “On these pages you will find descriptions of the programs this office has requested funding for on behalf of constituents and our local community.”

    Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.), ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, also chose to term his requests “Federal Funding for Local Projects,” which he announced in an April 3 press release.

    Camp was also one of a number of members to give only a bare-bones explanation of those requests, at least on his website.

    The most detailed explanation of Camp’s 11 requested projects reads: “Saginaw County (Spaulding Township): for Cass River Flood Control Project to help control flooding, strengthen levees and ensure emergency rescue service traffic may pass, $3,930,573.”

    Camp did submit more detailed information to the Appropriations Committee, but his spokesman, Sage Eastman, defended the lawmaker’s decision to truncate the request details for the Web.

    “People want to know what the project is and what it costs. That is what we put up,” Eastman said.

    Many other members defended their approaches. Himes is a “huge proponent of transparency,” his press secretary, Elizabeth Kerr, said, explaining that the office used the layout it did to make it “explicitly clear” why it proposed the projects it did.

    “The whole point of this is to make clear why this is a good use of taxpayer funds,” she said.

    Aides to other members, speaking on background, punted some of the blame to the ambiguous rule they were working with.

    “The guideline was very broad, and we just thought that was the appropriate place to put it,” said an aide to a member whose list was folded into a local-issues section. “We certainly weren’t trying to hide it.”

    Watchdog groups, which usually mine the funding requests themselves, looking for wasteful pet projects, also noted the wide latitude members took in linking to their requests.

    “The only thing consistent among the various websites is inconsistency,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Some lawmakers put a link to the disclosures right on the homepage, while others bury their requests under an electronic rock, forcing constituents to click through several pages under legislation, district initiatives, issues or some other general category.

    “That isn’t exactly transparency,” he said.

    The House Appropriations Committee did not comment for this article.

    (EDITOR'S NOTE: The screen shots of member websites in the above links were taken before this story went to print. The red arrows noting the appropriations links were added by The Hill.)

    Michael Gleeson contributed to this article.

    My only question is this. If this were not wrong, why then would you feel the need to hide it from the people?

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