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Correction Appended

On March 15, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a Water Resources Development Act reauthorization bill carrying nearly 600 projects for individual Members of Congress at a total cost of about $13 billion.

But by the time Congress overwhelmingly approved the bill on April 19, it had grown by about 115 projects that added almost $2 billion to the total cost of the bill, including $40 million each for unspecified water projects in the districts of Reps. John Mica (R-Fla.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), Richard Baker (R-La.), Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) and John Duncan (R-Tenn.). Mica is the ranking member of the full committee; Johnson and Baker are the chairwoman and ranking member, respectively, of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the bill; and Costello was on the subcommittee, which Duncan headed in the 109th Congress, when the House passed a WRDA bill that died before it got to the president’s desk.

Committee staff of both parties say the managers’ amendment that added more than 10 percent to the cost of the bill is nothing out of the ordinary. “Environmental infrastructure projects are added in the managers’ amendment by tradition,” said Mary Kerr, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Committee Democrats. Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for committee Republicans, said that because of confusion over the new disclosure requirements for earmarks this year, Mica and Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) agreed to add additional projects in the managers’ amendment even if Members had missed the deadline for requesting projects for the committee’s markup.

But critics say the WRDA managers’ amendment is a classic example of the abuse of earmarks.

The broad “environmental infrastructure” packages for committee leaders first were established by former Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, and they have “spread like a cancer” since then. “This is simply a way of rewarding people in power,” Ellis said. “It is a slush fund for whatever in a geographically described area, typically a single Congressional district.”

Ellis said that by adding the projects in the managers’ amendment, the committee leadership also has circumvented the new disclosure rules that were meant to make earmarks more transparent.

The committee report that accompanied the WRDA bill to the floor included for the first time a list of each earmark in the bill and the name of the Member who requested it. But the list of earmarks in the manager’s amendment simply was inserted into the Congressional Record on March 29 when the amendment was released, and the two lists were never reconciled into a master list by the committee. Someone looking for the earmarks would have to know to look in the March 29 record.

“This is not nearly what we thought we were promised or what we expected” when the House promised greater transparency in earmarks, Ellis said.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said WRDA bills have become a vehicle for funneling federal money back to local districts, and this year, “You are just pouring it in a managers’ amendment and larding up it up like this.”

But Flake’s view is clearly the minority — the House approved the bill by a vote of 394-25.

Supporters said the legislation is largely a repeat of the bill offered in the 109th Congress, and the committee has offered more disclosure than ever before.

“These are all projects that have been vetted multiple times, and they have come through the committee process” said Beth Glenn, spokeswoman for Johnson. “This wasn’t under the table or in the dark of night.”

The bill approved by the committee in 2005 had a federal cost of about $10 billion; the Bush administration has announced its opposition to this year’s bill and estimated it would cost at least $15 billion. But Glenn argued that the large price tag on the bill is partly a function of the fact that Congress has not passed a WRDA reauthorization since 2000, and in the interim, there has been “an accumulation of needs that this bill was meant to address.” Since the bill is supposed to be reauthorized every two years, “this is essentially three bills rolled into one,” she said.

David Gillies, chief of staff for Costello, said there was nothing sinister or secret about the water project for his district. “There are tremendous needs in our district,” Gillies said, and Costello “has been working on this project for several years. … It is something that has been well-known.”

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee also is moving ahead with a WRDA bill, and the committee leaders last week announced that they will require more disclosure of earmarks than they initially had planned.

In late March, Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter inviting Senators to make their earmark requests and noting that “once the disclosure requirements of S. 1, the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007, are enacted, the Committee intends to comply with them.”

On April 25, the two sent a second letter, explaining that while S. 1 still has not passed, “in order to avoid any disruption in the rapid completion of the Water Resources bill, we believe it is advisable to comply with the spirit of the proposed Senate Rule changes.” Hence Boxer and Inhofe asked all Members seeking a project in the WRDA bill to provide the committee by last Friday with “a letter stating that neither you nor your spouse, if applicable, has a pecuniary interest in the provision you requested.”

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) sent a similar letter on April 24 regarding project requests in the 2008 Defense Authorization Act, following on the heels of Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) announcement that the committee will apply the disclosure rules to this year’s appropriations bills.

Correction: May 2, 2007
The article misstated Rep. Jerry Costello’s (D-Ill.) position on the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee in the 109th Congress. He was a member of the subcommittee, but not the ranking member. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) was the ranking member.

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