By David S. Fallis, Scott Higham and Kimberly Kindy, Published: February 6
A U.S. senator from Alabama directed more than $100 million in federal earmarks to renovate downtown Tuscaloosa near his own commercial office building. A congressman from Georgia secured $6.3 million in taxpayer funds to replenish the beach about 900 feet from his island vacation cottage. A representative from Michigan earmarked $486,000 to add a bike lane to a bridge within walking distance of her home.
Thirty-three members of Congress have directed more than $300 million in earmarks and other spending provisions to dozens of public projects that are next to or within about two miles of the lawmakers’ own property, according to a Washington Post investigation.
In recent weeks, lawmakers have acknowledged the public’s growing concern that they appeared to be using their positions to enrich themselves. In response, the Senate last week passed legislation that would require lawmakers to disclose mortgages for their residences. The bill, known as the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (Stock) Act, would also require lawmakers and executive branch officials to disclose securities trades of more than $1,000 every 30 days. At the same time, the Senate defeated an amendment, 59-40, that would have permanently outlawed earmarks.
The House is scheduled to vote on the Stock Act on Thursday.
Earmarks have long been controversial, with the focus on spending that unduly favors campaign donors or constituents. The Post’s review is the first systematic effort to examine the alignment of earmarks with lawmakers’ private interests.
Earmarks are a fraction of the federal budget, and the numbers uncovered by The Post are relatively small in the scheme of the overall Congress, but the behavior by lawmakers from both parties points to a larger issue at a time when confidence in Capitol Hill is at an all-time low.
The congressional financial disclosure system obscures certain relationships. Lawmakers are not required to disclose the addresses of their personal residences or the employment of their children and parents. The lawmakers are also allowed to put properties in holding companies without disclosing the properties’ locations. Current versions of the Stock Act would not change that. To provide a fuller portrait of congressional connections, The Post compared the financial disclosure forms with the public record to track spending on projects near legislators’ properties or on programs employing their relatives.
In interviews, lawmakers said their earmarks were needs brought to them by the city and state officials they represent to help pay for safer roads, nicer neighborhoods or improved local economies. They characterized questions about the nearby locations of their own holdings as irrelevant, insisting there is no conflict. Any potential personal benefit — financial or otherwise — is nonexistent, minimal or secondary to the needs of the public, they said.