The US Capitol was nearly vacant Friday evening. Most lawmakers left nothing but jet fumes in their wake as they hustled out of Reagan National Airport Thursday night for a two-week break. Many Congressional staffers followed suit Friday, deserting the Capitol’s cavernous corridors. Signs admonishing tourists of “Official Business Only” in some passageways seemed absurd.
But amid the solitude, there was certainly a transaction of “Official Business.”
As offices shuttered their doors and rolled the phones over to recorded messages Friday evening, a spate of Congressional staffers wandered the Capitol corridors. These aides were on a crucial mission. And they carried with them stacks of envelopes.
Some would consider the contents of these envelopes to be the scourge of Congress. They’re certainly a source for endless commentary about what’s wrong with Washington, corruption and legislative favors. Members of Congress argue that the contents simply reflect constituent service and they’re using the power of the purse to bolster their local communities.
For inside these envelopes were lawmakers’ annual earmark requests: petitions to spend specific federal dollars on a specific project.
Earmarks requests were supposed to be in Friday at 5 pm. But because of a slow computer, the House Appropriations Committee pushed back the deadline to Saturday at five. Since most people had long abandoned the Capitol Friday night, it was easy to spot the earmark couriers wandering the halls. Most struggled to find the proper offices of the 12 influential, appropriations subcommittees that entertain the earmark requests.
House members apparently tasked low-level staffers as their earmark envoys. On Capitol Hill, most junior aides work out of the House office buildings across the street and rarely venture over to the Capitol. For instance, shortly before 8 pm, an aide for Rep. Zack Space (D-OH) emerged from an elevator on the third floor, turned right and walked the wrong way as he tried to find room H-310, home of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies.
But once Space’s staffer got his bearings and found H-310, he discovered that the trip was for naught.
“STOP,” read a sign plastered on the door of the subcommittee. “Are you here to drop off a project or program letter? All personal office letters and certificates should be uploaded to the Members Data Base. We do not need copies of the paperwork. We are only accepting original, multi-member, programmatic request letters.”
The Subcommittee then offered a handout on how to upload an earmark request to the website.
Space’s aide immediately reached for his cell phone and dialed the mother ship for further instructions.
But sitting at the door of H-310 was a box, stocked with what were apparently “multi-member, programmatic request letters,” or earmark requests.
These entreaties came in all forms. Each envelope was addressed to Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), the chairman of the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee. The envelopes were all in all shapes and sizes. Most were legal size. One even arrived in a reusable, blue, “inter-office memo” envelope with a string tie on the back. Another envelope read “H-309 Capital.” The mistake was then corrected in long-hand with “Capitol.” On top of the stack was a giant, mustard-colored envelope, signed in the upper, right-hand corner by House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN).
Even though Mollohan and his 11 colleagues just chair Appropriations Subcommittees, they are each known on Capitol Hill as “cardinals.” The term is an ecclesiastical nod to the power of cardinals in the Catholic Church. In Congressional parlance, the 12 chairs of the Appropriations Subcommittees are deemed “cardinals” because they wield such divine influence over federal spending.
Each subcommittee handled the earmark requests differently. And despite the 5 pm Saturday electronic deadline, some of the subcommittees seemingly allowed hard copies of the requests to be turned in Monday.
Downstairs in the basement of the Capitol, aides posted a sign across the door of room HB-26. “The State For-Ops Subcommittee Office is closed,” read the memo. “Please bring paper copies of all member request letters to this office by 5 pm on Monday, April. 6.”
Upstairs, at H-143, the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Subcommittee invited aides to leave the earmark requests in a cardboard box sitting on a table outside the doorway. A sign warning “Do Not Remove” with the ‘o’s’ filled in with smiley faces rested beneath the box.
At the other end of the hallway, underneath a painting of a Native American disguised in a deer pelt as he hunts game, the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee displayed a sign discouraging aides from leaving packages at the door. The subcommittee insisted the requests be uploaded electronically by Saturday afternoon. But it asked that “hard copies of the required documents” be brought to the office after 10 am Monday.
Upon winning control of Congress, Democrats worked to make the earmarking process more transparent. Previously, exhaustive gumshoeing was necessary to determine who authored a given earmark. But under the Democrats regime, lawmakers are required to post their earmark solicitations on their website and pen what’s called a “certification letter.” The letter asks that House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-WI) and the panel’s ranking Republican, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) bless the appeal.
Lawmakers took different approaches to announcing their earmark requests. Some did so with explanations as to why they asked for an earmark or described their criteria.
For instance, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) declared that his earmarking decisions are “a process of matching available federal funding to appropriate local needs, and in the First District of Hawaii, it follows extensive meetings with local and state officials, military commanders, university leaders and nonprofit organizations.”
Among other things, Abercrombie requested $13.5 million to pay for dry-dock work on submarines at Pearl Harbor and $4.8 million for the Pacific Aviation Museum.
“This project would repair badly rusting exterior staircases and landings” and “remove interior hazardous materials,” Abercrombie wrote.
Meantime, Rep. Don Young (R-AK), requested well over 400 earmarks, each listed on a detailed, downloadable spreadsheet. Young called for everything from $81,000 to fund youth programs at the YWCA to $3.6 million to staff a hospital in Bethel, AK.
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) exhibited a disclaimer about earmarks on his website and brandished a letter he wrote to Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey.
“I believe our current earmarks process, while improved, remains largely dysfunctional,” Weiner wrote. “Despite an imperfect system, however, I think it’s important to fight for my district and my city.”
Among Weiner’s earmarks: A $1.25 million request for a program at Brooklyn College to monitor the Jamaica Bay ecosystem. And Weiner asked for an earmark no one probably would have even thought of a year ago: $545,000 to establish a mortgage fraud and financial crimes unit in the Queens County District Attorneys office.
The top three House Republican leaders all eschewed earmarks. But the fourth-ranking House Republican, GOP Conference Vice-Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) did not. Rather than describe her appeals as earmarks or appropriations, McMorris Rodgers website euphemistically called them “Eastern Washington Budget Requests.”
McMorris Rodgers made sure to make her “budget requests” with a caveat.
“When requesting specific budget projects, my process adheres to the gold standard of transparency and accountability,” she wrote.
McMorris Rodgers’ then described a five-point litmus test she uses to weigh the worthiness of a request. Among the criteria: keeping communities and the country safe and helping Eastern Washington’s agricultural economy.
The Washington Republican then petitioned for $4.1 million for a vehicle maintenance facility at Fairchild Air Force Base and $3.5 million for the Washington Grain Alliance to try to curb “stem rust that threatens wheat, barley and oats.”
By 5 pm Saturday, lawmakers had asked for thousands of earmarks. Like years past, it’s likely they’ll only cost a fraction of the federal budget. The Appropriations subcommittees soon begins whittling away at the earmark requests. And commentators and reporters will drill down into the earmark lists, undoubtedly unearthing some that appear to be carried out at the behest of a lobbyist or campaign fundraiser peddling influence.
Thousands of the requests are appropriate, straightforward and honest. Thousands squishy. And they’ll generate countless airtime and column inches in the coming months.
But for now, they’re all just wish lists. Many sitting in innocuous envelopes in boxes outside locked Congressional offices, next to foreboding signs reading “Official Business.”
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.