Congressional watchdogs got excited when the U.S. House opened up a window this year into how its members make their sausage. Specifically, pork sausage.
And WW was just as jacked by the new rules calling on legislators to disclose their "earmarks"—funds they seek for specific projects, usually in their districts. Critics of earmarks call them something else: "pork."
A WW analysis of data for House and Senate appropriations bills made public by the nonpartisan budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense showed Rep. Darlene Hooley, a Democrat from West Linn, has had her name attached to far more earmarked cash than any of Oregon's six other federal lawmakers.
WW' s analysis found Hooley is behind appropriations earmarks totaling more than $103 million—roughly $30 million ahead of the next closest lawmaker, Republican Sen. Gordon Smith. (Granted, more than $80 million of Hooley's total is for a single project—light rail improvements in downtown Portland and an extension to Clackamas.)
Taxpayers for Common Sense and other congressional watchdog groups pushed for the disclosure measures in the belief that they help taxpayers identify and fight waste and abuse. Those groups argue that the previously anonymous requests too often rewarded narrow interests and lawmakers' re-election efforts.
Counterintuitively perhaps, attaching lawmakers' names to earmarks has, rather than reining them in, become an index of status and clout, The New York Times reported in a front-page story Aug 5.
"[M]any lawmakers say the new visibility has only intensified competition for projects…," the story said.
And Hooley's certainly not trying to hide her earmark enthusiasm. In press release after press release, she touts her ability to secure millions for projects, such as a new interchange for Interstate 5, deepening the Columbia River channel and studying shellfish genetics.
Lawmakers have long engaged in such self-promotion, but the new transparency also lets the public see the earmarks lawmakers aren't flaunting. (To view all of each lawmaker's earmarks, click here.)
When Hooley publicized her earmarks in the Agriculture Appropriations Act in a July 20 press release, she failed to mention she'd also helped secure $2.4 million for "Floriculture and Nursery Crops" research in Beltsville, Md.—among the largest of all her earmarks.
The money will fund research for one of Oregon's most important ag sectors, says Hooley spokeswoman Joan Evans. "That research benefits Oregon as well as every other state that has a need for pest control," Evans adds.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Springfield, also attached his name to the Maryland earmark.
According to federal statistics, greenhouse and nursery products are Oregon's top agricultural commodity, comprising 6 percent of the country's total and more than a quarter of the state's farm receipts.
As for the earmarks closer to home, Evans says: "Oregon has traditionally been a donor state, meaning we give more money in taxes than we get…. We've been very active in helping Oregon stay competitive in the global economy through investing wisely in Oregon projects."
Not every appropriation request qualifies as wasteful "pork," cautions the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. The group considers requests wasteful only if they aren't included in the president's budget, are requested by only one chamber of Congress, aren't competitively awarded, or benefit only a small group of people.
CAGW publishes a yearly "Pig Book," a compilation of pork spending. Last year, CAGW ranked Oregon 29th in the country, with $104 million, or $28.55 per citizen, going to pork-barrel projects. The top-ranked state was Alaska, with $325 million, or $490 per citizen.
Though not a panacea, the added transparency is helping, says CAGW's vice president of policy David Williams.
"We've only seen a few really ridiculous earmarks so far," he says. "Granted, they haven't gone to conference yet." Conference committees will hash out differences between House and Senate appropriations bills later this year.
Oregon lawmakers, like the rest of their peers, make sure funds are set aside for issues they're passionate about or ventures their constituents will be likely to notice.
Rep. David Wu, a Portland Democrat and the first and only Chinese American serving in the House, requested $150,000 for a Chinese Heritage Park in Astoria. Wu's office says the request came from the city and that the congressman's ethnicity wasn't a factor. "Chinese immigrants were an essential part of the coastal economy and contributed greatly to the vibrant history of Astoria and Clatsop County," Wu says.
Sen. Smith set aside $200,000 for the Cascade AIDS Project, a plum item as Smith tries to win over gay-rights supporters.
Already some citizens are making use of the disclosures. When Lake Oswego resident Tom Cusack retired last month, he started a blog (oregonearmarks.blogspot.com) dedicated to keeping track of what Oregon lawmakers are up to.
"I thought there wasn't a lot of great information I saw that narrowed down what was going on for Oregon," says Cusack, a former field office manager for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Still, it's not over until the pork bellies sing, cautions CAGW media director Leslie Paige.
"We suspect there will still be a ton of earmarks in the conference phase," she says. "We won't know if it's fixed until we get to the end of the process."