Enviropork: Reporting on the Secret Santas

December 1, 2010

The Senate's Nov. 30 vote not to impose a moratorium on "earmarks" practically ensures that pork-barrel spending will live on as a subject for journalists — at least in fiscal 2011.

Some journalists and legislators talk about pork as if it's a bad thing. Of course, only Congressionally earmarked spending in somebody else's district counts as pork. In one's own home district, it is more likely to be called critical infrastructure, job-creation, or civil works.

On the environmental beat, earmarks may go to things like drinking-water treatment plants, fish hatcheries, acquisition of land parcels for National Parks, construction of a "green" federal office building, extension of a sewage line into a tribal area, a grant to a particular nonprofit environmental research foundation, or a grant for a particular historic preservation project. Or, as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) likes to point out, beaver management.

The environmental beat abounds in earmarks. Typically, these are buried in hard-to-find addendums to the annual appropriations bills passed by Congress. This year, they are especially hard to find, since Congress has not passed any appropriations bills and is likely to punt with one big omnibus extension of existing appropriations (known as a "continuing resolution") as the lame-duck session grinds to a desperate end.

Most enviropork can be found in two appropriations bills: either Interior and Related Agencies or Energy and Water. Each bill is produced by a corresponding Appropriations subcommittee of the same name. An earmark is a Congressional instruction to executive branch agencies to spend a specific portion of the overall appropriation in a given category on a specific project or program — usually in the home district of the member requesting it from the subcommittee chairman. The earmarks can usually be found in either the text of the appropriations bill itself or in the report of one of the subcommittees sending it to the floor.

There is no substitute for actually reading bills and reports. That will be harder this year since texts of the final appropriations will be difficult to get until well after Congress has adjourned and left the scene of the crime.

The job may be a little easier because of earmark disclosure rules adopted in recent years by both the House and Senate. Typically, the rules require members requesting particular earmarks to identify themselves in connection with their requests. The rules may also require appropriations bills/reports to be accompanied by a table purportedly listing all the earmarks. The table is typically labeled something like "Disclosure of Congressionally Directed Spending Items." Reporters would be wise not to assume uncritically that such lists are complete.  

Still, there are a few resources reporters can use to get stories on state and local earmarks. One is the Senate appropriations bills.

The Energy & Water bill has been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, and both the bill (S 3635) and report (S. Rept. 111-228) have been published. They are available on Thomas.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies did not approve a bill yet this year. But a few environment-related appropriations can be found in other bills, such as the Agriculture appropriation (S 3606 — S. Rept. 111-221) ; or the Department of Homeland Security appropriation (S 3607 — S. Rept. 111-222).

A useful — but limited — tool in identifying earmarks is known as Earmarks.gov, and is maintained by the White House Office of Management and Budget. This database today is only current through the fiscal year 2010 appropriations cycle, since Congress has largely failed to act on new fy 2011 appropriations. Once Congress acts, it may be more useful.

Another useful source for tracking earmarks is the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. Data from the TCS is displayed online in a more accessible and searchable form by LegiStorm.

A searchable online data portal known as OpenSecrets.org (run by the Center for Responsible Politics) presents TCS earmarks data in a way that allows earmarks to be matched with campaign contributors to the members requesting the earmarks.

That practice was so rife with opportunities for corruption that House Democrats finally banned it in March 2010. But companies seem already to have found ways around the ban.