By Dean Calbreath
, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Sunday, March 14, 2010 at 3:17 a.m.
It’s been 15 years since a certain lawmaker from San Diego County stood up in Congress to denounce the practice of adding billions of dollars in earmarks onto federal appropriations bills.
“For years, Americans have been outraged by the provisions snuck into much-larger bills by individual members of Congress,” said then-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham. “With appropriations bills routinely running into the hundreds of billions of dollars, many members of Congress have grown quite adept in adding their pet provisions.”
Of course, Cunningham is now in prison after admitting he took $2.4 million in bribes for adding at least $100 million worth of earmarks into the federal budget for his own “pet provisions,” benefiting MZM Inc. of Virginia and ADCS of Poway.
Since the Cunningham affair exploded in 2005, Congress has added a few restrictions on earmarks, mostly having to do with making them more transparent.
But with public concern mounting over the burgeoning budget deficit, Congress last week took some serious steps to crack down on earmarks — funds that are targeted for specific companies, special-interest groups or projects.
Democrats took the lead on Wednesday as leaders of the House Appropriations Committee moved to ban any earmarks to for-profit companies, while allowing earmarks to continue for nonprofits and state or municipal governments. The Republican leadership in Congress on Thursday imposed a one-year moratorium on earmarks from their party members.
“We need to immediately cut off the earmarks that have given Washington a bad name,” read a statement signed by 10 Republican leaders, including Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista. “Partial solutions are not enough. An immediate earmark moratorium is the only way to wipe the slate clean and allow us to start getting spending under control.”
Critics of the earmarking process say that both measures leave loopholes that skilled lobbyists should be able to plow through.
“It’s a good first step, especially since everyone’s one-upping each other now, ” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a longtime critic of the earmarking process. “But it’s hard to know how it will all play out, especially since the Senate hasn’t done anything about it yet. There are still ways of getting around it — for instance by giving people tax breaks instead of earmarks. It accomplishes the same goal, but it’s not called an earmark.”
In the meantime, the proposed restrictions on earmarks will likely have an effect on San Diego County, especially for military contractors that have won hundreds of millions of dollars through earmarks over the past few years.
“Will it hurt San Diego? Will it hurt the defense industry? Will it hurt national security? Yes,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, who, like his father before him, is a firm proponent of using earmarks to bring more money into his district.
In 2008 and 2009, San Diego County’s five House members wrote more than $75 million worth of earmarks into federal appropriations, or $155 million if you include earmarks they co-signed with other members. During the current fiscal year, they added $1.4 billion more, though because of the varying ways the documents are filed, it’s unclear whether the earmarks were made individually or as part of a group.
The vast majority of that funding has gone to infrastructure projects, such as the connector between state Route 56 and Interstate 5 or the Vista-Carlsbad Wastewater Project. Other money has gone to fund community groups or scientific research projects.
But the reason earmarks have gotten such a bad name is that they often target private companies, including those that have donated to politicians’ campaigns. Here’s a look at how our own representatives have done:
• Bob Filner, $1.2 billion. Filner is usually relatively low on the earmark list. Last year, he ranked 363rd out of 435 members in Congress for his earmarks. The previous year, he was 417th, with most of his earmarks targeting transportation, environmental and law-enforcement projects. This year, however, his earmarks jumped substantially through his support of a $941 million program to build Navy ammunition ships, with the bulk of the work being handled at the NASSCO shipyards in National City. Filner also asked for $9.5 million for a Navy surveillance system built by San Diego’s Cubic Corp.
• Susan Davis, $215 million. Davis’ earmarks included more than $41 million targeting local defense firms, ranging from $4 million to SAIC to develop treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, to $2,250 to Vision Robotics, for guidance systems for unmanned vehicles. SAIC has been one of her top 10 contributors during her time in Congress.
• Brian Bilbray, $69 million. Bilbray’s only corporate earmark last year, which he shared with Hunter, was $26 million to General Atomics for its unmanned aerial vehicle. Most of the other money went to local governments to use on infrastructure projects.
• Issa, zero. Issa decided not to author any earmarks this year and praised his fellow Republicans for belatedly catching up with his example last week.
• Hunter, $37 million. During his first year in Congress, Hunter’s earmarks included the General Atomics UAV; $1 million to Chi Systems in Poway, for a medical training program for the military; and $3 million to Trex Enterprises, for radar technology that helps pilots navigate through dust storms. General Atomics has been Hunter’s top contributor since he entered politics and Trex was founded by an uncle, but he insists such relationships don’t matter, especially since his family’s ties with Trex ended long ago.
Hunter insists that earmarks are a necessary part of his job, because he’s in a position to see worthy projects that deserve funding that sometimes escape the attention of the Pentagon or White House.
“Sure there’s been some corruption, and the system needs to be fixed,” he said. “But it’s not as if we’re just sitting here and saying, ‘Here’s our favorite contractor, let’s give him some money.’ ”
Winslow Wheeler, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information, said that all too often, that’s exactly what happens: a local company persuades legislators to back a project before they’ve done enough research to see whether it’s needed. And it doesn’t hurt if they’ve developed close ties with the help of campaign contributions.
Wheeler adds that after 30 years in the defense industry, he’s skeptical as to whether the new restrictions will have any effect.
“If you end earmarking, you get phone-calling instead, with legislators calling the Pentagon to tell them what they’d like,” he said. “The devil’s in the details.”
Dean Calbreath: (619) 293-1891; firstname.lastname@example.org