Congressman Jeff Flake killed the Perfect Christmas Tree. The Arizona Republican and fierce opponent of earmark spending made a simple argument on the House floor: The federal government shouldn't spend $129,000 to bolster an ornament-making program by local artisans in Spruce Pine, N.C., even if it helps a lagging local economy.
The House voted to scuttle federal earmark spending for the "Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree" project of the Mitchell County Development Foundation. Rep. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, had inserted the earmark into a general government appropriations bill.
It was a meager victory for Flake: The congressman challenged some 50 earmarks totaling more than $77 million. The Christmas tree project was his only win.
This year House legislators applied for more than 30,000 earmarks, the specially tagged federal dollars also known as pork-barrel spending. Earmarks typically fund pet projects in legislators' home districts but escape much of the scrutiny of competitive government grants. Roughly 8,000 earmarks survived, totaling billions of taxpayer dollars.
Among the earmarks the House approved over Flake's objections: $100,000 for a hunting and fishing museum in Tionesta, Pa.; $250,000 for a wine and culinary center in Prosser, Wash.; and $628,843 for grape genetics research at Cornell University.
Flake wasn't alone in his earmark opposition. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., successfully squashed a $1 million earmark to fund a New York museum commemorating the Woodstock music festival. New York Democratic senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer had inserted the funding into an education and health spending bill.
But the Senate also passed a slew of eyebrow-raising earmarks in spending bills this fall: $500,000 for a "Virtual Herbarium" in New York; $100,000 to celebrate Lake Champlain's quadricentennial; and $400,000 for the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.
Flake decried the thousands of earmarks squeezed into bills. "Those of us on the Republican side understand very well the political perils of this practice," Flake said on the House floor. "Unfettered earmarking-and the corruption that accompanies it-was a major factor in putting us right where we are today: squarely in the minority."
Democrats rode a wave of national frustration over ethical concerns and wasteful government spending by Republicans to victory in both houses of Congress last year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promised that the new Democratic Congress would be "the most ethical Congress ever" and vowed to begin with earmark reform.
Congress did pass earmark reform earlier this year, improving transparency and reducing the overall number of earmarks. But critics-including a handful of outspoken legislators-say the process is still fraught with complication, cronyism, and potential for corruption, and that Congress needs to go further to keep its promises to use taxpayer money wisely.
Not all the money tagged for earmarks goes to projects like Christmas tree ornaments or virtual herbariums. Legislators also earmark funds for public enterprises like hospitals, roads, schools, and transit systems.
There's another group drawing attention for its penchant to seek earmarks: religious organizations. Spending bills this year included earmarks for Jewish nonprofits, Catholic community programs, and local YMCAs.
Evangelical organizations receive a piece of the pie as well. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., drew attention to the practice this fall when he earmarked $100,000 for the Louisiana Family Forum. The senator tagged the funds for the Christian organization's efforts to promote creationism in public schools.
The ACLU cried foul and charged Vitter with using government funds to promote religion. The senator eventually withdrew the earmark, citing "the hysterics" of secular groups.
Louisiana Family Forum president Gene Mills said he didn't know about the doomed earmark until he learned Vitter had already included it in the bill. (Legislators don't always inform groups they are seeking earmarks on their behalf.)
But other Christian organizations are closely watching to see if they will land earmarks when Congress finalizes spending bills this month. At least a handful of those groups have a vested interest: Like many organizations seeking earmarks, they've paid lobbyists to help procure the funds.
One of the most prominent groups lobbying for Christian organizations on Capitol Hill is the Washington, D.C.--based Russ Reid Company. Mark McIntyre spearheads the group's lobbying efforts from his office on L Street.
McIntyre formerly worked as a speechwriter for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, and as a press secretary to former Rep. Robert Livingston, R-La. Before retiring, Livingston chaired the House Appropriations Committee, overseeing earmarks in the House.
McIntyre did not respond to WORLD's requests for an interview, but the organization's website says Russ Reid Company specializes in "securing significant federal dollars for our clients through the line-item earmark process." The site includes a list of clients the company has served, including Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, Fuller Theological Seminary, and the Evangelical Environmental Network.
Russ Reid Company successfully lobbied for other Christian organizations this year, including World Impact, a Christian ministry that plants churches and conducts community enrichment programs in inner-city neighborhoods across the country.
As a result of the lobbying efforts, legislators inserted $1.9 million in earmarks for World Impact projects in California, Kansas, and Missouri. (That figure will likely be smaller when the spending bills are finalized.)
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., included an $850,000 earmark in the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development spending bill for World Impact's Morning Star Ranch in Florence, Kan. Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., inserted $50,000 into the House version of the bill for the World Impact ranch.
World Impact president Keith Phillips told WORLD that the organization would use the funds to jumpstart the building of needed facilities at the ranch. The Kansas ranch serves troubled young men, including gang members, addicts, and delinquents, through a Christian-based program focused on discipline, job training, and personal responsibility.
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., also included a $750,000 earmark for World Impact to renovate a former YMCA in downtown St. Louis. Phillips says the renovated building will serve as a community center and a hub for emergency assistance, including distribution of food and clothing. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., earmarked $150,000 for the project in the House.
Bond, who sits on the Senate's spending committee, inserted more than $100 million in earmarks for other projects across his home region this year. Citizens Against Government Waste designated one of Bond's projects as one of the "most egregious" items in a financial services bill: $750,000 for an Asian Equities Research Center.
Bond defended all the Missouri earmarks he authored, telling WORLD he works to ensure the state receives "the resources needed for critical projects."
Russ Reid Company lobbied for other Christian organizations this year as well, including Covenant House, a faith-based organization serving homeless youth in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Fla., inserted a $200,000 earmark for a Covenant House program aimed at helping pregnant teens.
Covenant House spokeswoman Paula Tibbetts said the earmark's final approval is still up in the air. She also said that the group already receives federal funding from HHS and HUD for housing projects and that the group is open to audits and reviews.
Other Christian organizations actively seeking earmarks include World Vision, an international Christian relief agency. The group hired Russ Reid Company from 2002 to 2004 and contracted a different lobbying firm from 2005 to 2006. World Vision received about $5.4 million in earmarks from 1998 to 2005 for poverty-fighting programs.
Romanita Hairston, a vice president at World Vision, said earmarks have been one of the group's most cost-effective funding streams: World Vision spent about $575,000 to procure the $5.4 million in earmarks. The group also pursues competitive grants.
World Impact's Phillips defended seeking earmarks, saying World Impact relieves a financial and social burden on the federal government by providing crucial services to communities. He told WORLD that his organization pursues competitive grants as well.
Phillips also noted that if groups like World Impact don't receive earmarks, the funds will go elsewhere: "Most of your readers would rather have the funds go to a faith-based ministry . . . rather than one that does not share their moral views."
Sen. Coburn shares World Impact's Christian views, but he says the problem isn't who gets earmarks. Instead, Coburn told WORLD: "The process stinks."
The process of how an earmark becomes law is complicated and murky: First, legislators must submit applications for earmarks to congressional committees, outlining the purpose and need for the intended projects. Some lawmakers hold hearings and visit project sites to demonstrate their understanding of the projects' needs.
But procedures for submitting applications differ for each committee, and legislators need an understanding of the unwritten rules for gaining support for their earmarks among committee members.
Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., prides herself on understanding the system, and she admits the process rewards those with inside knowledge. Brown has lined up more than $7 million in earmarks for her home district this year but says she won't share her methods, even with friends like Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat with only $800,000 in earmarks.
"Eddie Bernice Johnson is my best friend, but I never discuss appropriations with her," Brown told Congressional Quarterly. "We're going after the same thing."
The problem with such an insider's system, according to Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, is that Congress isn't asking: "Would another group be better at this? Should we be funding this at all?" Ellis told WORLD earmarks are often awarded based on "muscle, not merit."
The House member flexing the most muscle is Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and oversees earmarks for the committee's bills. This year Murtha sponsored some $166 million in earmarks for his home district in the massive defense bill, more than any other legislator.
When two Republican lawmakers questioned Murtha's earmarks, the congressman threatened to withhold earmarks from them. "You're not going to get any, now or forever," he told Rep. Mike Rogers from Michigan. Murtha later apologized, but Ellis says such outbursts reveal the potential for corruption in the earmark process.
The potential for corruption in earmarks is well known, and Congress partially addressed some of the problems by passing earmark reform earlier this year. Legislators are now required to submit their names along with project details and disclosure letters about their spending requests, something not required in the past.
Ellis says this is an improvement, but problems remain. For example, when appropriations committees reported earmarks this year, they separated the list of project sponsors from the data with dollar amounts, making it difficult to quickly discern or question individual earmarks.
The eight staff members at Taxpayers for Common Sense spent weeks matching 1,804 disclosure letters to the 1,339 earmarks in the defense bill alone.
When a reporter complained to Murtha about the continuing difficulty of gaining information about earmarks, the congressman-who vigorously opposed earmark reform-replied: "So, you have to work. Tough sh-."
Ellis says Murtha's comments show contempt for taxpayers, and a desire to continue to obscure the process. "At the end of the day, we shouldn't have to do all this digging," he says. "Congress should be telling taxpayers how they are spending their money."
Sen. Coburn agrees. He says earmark reform was a good idea but adds: "We've washed the outside of the cup, but not the inside."