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Washington's 'Pay to Play:' Billions Wasted in Earmarks

By    |   Wednesday, 04 March 2009 07:41 PM EST

The $410 billion spending bill that President Obama expected to sail through Congress is now coming under intense fire for thousands of earmarks that even some senators admit look like pay-to-play politics.

On Monday, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told fellow senators the “outright greed” and the political motivation behind many earmarks made him “want to vomit.”

When it appeared Coburn might be blocked from offering earmark-curtailing amendments to the omnibus spending bill, he complained: “We’re not supposed to take out things that are obviously quid pro quo in terms of earmarks and campaign contributions.”

Author and Wall Street Journal commentator John Fund, who has written extensively on earmarks and the corrupting influence of money on politics, tells Newsmax that many of the omnibus earmarks are just more subtle versions of the “pay to play” politics for which Illinois has become infamous.

“D.C. earmarks often have same origins and purpose as Chicago ‘sweeteners,’” Fund tells Newsmax, “but they are more elegantly packaged and more cleverly hidden.”

Ronald Utt, senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, also views earmarks as close relatives of the more blatant political transactions that have drawn the attention of federal investigators.

“I think it’s very close,” Utt tells Newsmax. “These things are bought and sold like bushels of wheat and bales of cotton.”

Of course, some earmark requests are intended to address what appear to be valid needs. But earmarks both past and present appear to be growing more controversial by the minute as more details emerge:

  • In the House version of the spending bill, Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., sponsored $19 million in earmarks for 22 groups and projects. One of them involved $238,000 for the Sephardic Addiction and Family Education (SAFE) foundation – money to help families struggling with addictive behaviors. What has attracted attention is that the organization’s board of directors have contributed more than $160,000 to Weiner’s various campaigns, according to the New York Daily News. “It smacks of pay to play,” says Steve Ellis with Taxpayers for Common Sense. According to the New York Daily News, Weiner also sponsored a $300,000 earmark for Brooklyn’s Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, whose director, David Mandel, personally contributed $6,240 to Weiner’s political endeavors. Mandel tells the Daily News the contributions were “certainly not” a factor in winning the earmark. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has defended Weiner, saying earmarks are “probably just a fact of life” for congressmen, the newspaper reports.

  • GOP Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who recently declined an opportunity to become President Obama’s Commerce Secretary, has in recent years channeled some $66 million in earmarks to transform the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H., into a business park. The Associated Press reports that while Gregg was sponsoring the earmarks, he also was an investor in the park, having poured between $465,004 and $1,050,000 of his own money into several real estate ventures there involving his brother, Cyrus Gregg. Sen. Gregg says his investments, which were made public in his personal financial disclosure report, do not violate Senate guidelines. "These earmarks do not benefit me in any way, shape, manner financially, personally or in any other manner other than the fact that I'm a citizen of New Hampshire," Gregg told the AP. The AP reports Gregg has collected at least $240,017 from his investments. It adds that Gregg leases a former Pease guard post to serve as one of his Senate offices.

  • According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, some $30 million of earmarks in the Senate version of the omnibus bill are sponsored by senators who no longer work there. One $3 million “non-earmark” – so called because it is not identified as such in the 1,000-page bill – appears to reflect the legacy of former congressman Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission. Hamilton hasn’t served in Congress since 1999, and reports the earmark dates back to at least 2002. The $3 million is designated for the University of Indiana and its Center for Congress, which aims to enhance public understanding of how the Congress works. According to, Hamilton is a director of the Center, which he helped create. But because it’s not identified as an earmark, no one has to attach their name to the expenditure – in other words, no one knows who requested the $3 million, which has apparently been made each year since 2002.

  • Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., is a University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa graduate who regularly rewards his alma mater with millions of dollars of earmarks for research, including the study of shrimp and catfish. Among the earmarks Shelby sponsored or co-sponsored in the current bill: $819,000 for study of the catfish genome, and $800,000 for oyster rehabilitation.

  • Sen. Coburn has targeted 39 earmarks in the omnibus bill that would benefit clients of PMA Group, the lobbying firm whose offices were raided by the FBI in November for suspicion of improper campaign contributions. According to, PMA and its clients donated a stunning $7.8 million to the campaigns of congressmen who sit on the defense appropriations committees. reports PMA won its clients “hundreds of millions” in earmarks. According to, omnibus earmarks for current PMA clients include $950,000 that was sponsored by Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, for a company named Alpha Micron to develop an “advanced window technology; another $950,000 requested by Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., for research by a firm named NuVant Systems into methanol fuel cells; plus several earmarks requested by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. Sen. John McCain has stated Congress should not approve earmarks for PMA clients while the activities of PMA are under federal investigation.

    The Obama administration has sought to portray the omnibus spending bill as “last year’s business,” and has warned Congress that it will be drafting tougher guidelines for earmarks in future legislation. During the campaign, Obama promised he would go “line by line” through legislation to take out wasteful spending, but he has also stated he intends to sign the spending bill regardless of earmarks, assuming it is approved by the Senate.

    The suspicion that some congressmen may be putting their political interests above public welfare amidst a severe economic downturn has even Obama’s supporters running short on patience, however. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote Wednesday in the New York Times that, “In one of his disturbing spells of passivity, President Obama decided not to fight Congress and live up to his own no-earmark pledge from the campaign.”

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    The $410 billion spending bill that President Obama expected to sail through Congress is now coming under intense fire for thousands of earmarks that even some senators admit look like pay-to-play politics. On Monday, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told fellow senators the...
    Wednesday, 04 March 2009 07:41 PM
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