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Indiana University Shares $3M Non-Earmark

Tucked into the 2009 omnibus spending bill that Congress is now deliberating is a $3 million provision that is not identified as an earmark and has no sponsor’s name attached, but it appears to be the legacy of Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), a revered Member who left the House a decade ago.

The provision apparently has appeared in spending bills for so long that it has escaped the new requirements that the sponsors and beneficiaries of earmarks be disclosed, and even the recipients of the money could not explain how the language ended up in this year’s spending bill.

The language in the education section conference report of the spending bill provides the funding “to continue the comprehensive program to improve public knowledge, understanding, and support of American democratic institutions, which is a cooperative project among the Center for Civic Education, the Center on Congress at Indiana University and the Trust for Representative Democracy at the National Conference of State Legislatures.”

The money is not listed in the tables that identify hundreds of other specific projects in the bill and their Congressional sponsors. Nevertheless, Hamilton appears to be a central figure behind the provision.

Hamilton retired in 1999 after serving in Congress for 33 years, and he became director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A respected moderate, he has since served on many high-profile boards and commissions, most notably as vice chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 commission.

But Hamilton is also director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, a small think tank he established in January 1999, just as he was leaving the House.

According to its Web site, the Center “developed out of Lee Hamilton’s recognition during his time in the U.S. House of Representatives of the need to improve broad public understanding of Congress — its role in our large and remarkably diverse country, its strengths and its weaknesses, its impact on the lives of ordinary people everyday.” Hamilton developed the center with Myles Brand, who was then the president of IU, the Web site explains.

The center’s mission “is to help improve the public’s understanding of Congress and to improve civic engagement, especially among our young people, as a way to strengthen our basic institutions of government.”

The center’s two assistant directors are Wayne Vance and Kenneth Nelson, both of whom were longtime staffers in Hamilton’s Congressional office.

The center gets private grants and donations, but it also gets a slice of federal money through the Department of Education’s $20 million “We the People” civic education program, under the Congressional directive that has been inserted in appropriations bills for years.

In the 2009 spending bill earmark tables, about 100 Members of Congress are listed as requesting $25 million for civic education programs, including We the People, but there is no mention of the $3 million specifically directed to the Center on Congress and its partners.

The Bush administration last year suggested eliminating all of the We the People money, arguing in Education Department budget documents that the Center for Civic Education, which runs the program, is an established nonprofit that is capable of doing its own fundraising. The budget documents added that eliminating funding for the program “is consistent with the Administration’s policy of … eliminating small categorical programs that have limited impact, and for which there is little or no reliable evidence of effectiveness.”

The documents made no mention of the Center on Congress.

Vance told Roll Call that he was uncertain how the funding for the center has remained in the spending bills. A government affairs official at Indiana University was also uncertain of how the language came about, and a spokeswoman for Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) — who now represents the district — said Hill did not request the funding.

The IU center does not run academic programs and does not publish white papers, Vance told Roll Call, but it produces teaching resources such as video simulations and brochures on how Congress functions.

The Center on Congress has also sponsored several seminars in Washington, D.C., to train reporters on how to cover Congressional budget proceedings. The events have been held at the Wilson Center’s offices in the Ronald Reagan Building.

Vance said the person who would know most about the funding is Mark Molli in the Washington office of the California-based Center for Civic Education. Molli told Roll Call that the Indiana provision had been added to the appropriations bill at some point around 2002, but that he did not know who sponsored it. Hamilton did not respond to phone calls, and his spokeswoman said he “doesn’t know anything about that.”

Molli said the Bush administration tried to zero out the civic education program and several other small education programs for four years, and every year Congress put the money back. “It is one of the most cost- effective programs in the federal government,” he said.

Molli said the center does excellent work, particularly in providing Web-based educational materials for teachers to help explain how Congress works.

Congressional rules require a committee chairman to disclose all earmarks in a bill and the names of the Members who requested them, with an earmark defined as “a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Senator providing, authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or Congressional district.”

But earmark opponents say there are still dozens of provisions in the appropriations bill that are not called earmarks and not disclosed.

Phil Kerpen, director of policy at Americans for Prosperity, said “One of [Hamilton’s] friends most likely put it in there,” and while “I don’t think this is something nefarious,” it demonstrates the limits of the earmark disclosure rules.

“There is no objective judge of this,” Kerpen said. If House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) “certifies this is a full listing of all the earmarks, there is nothing procedurally you can really do.”

House rules do not require that the list of earmarks be complete or accurate, only that the chairman certifies that the list is complete.

Since the provision has been in several prior appropriations bills, the chairman can simply conclude that it is a widely supported program that should not be considered an earmark.

In February 2007, Hamilton wrote an opinion piece arguing for more transparency in Congress, saying that lobbying expenses and campaign donations should be made more easily accessible online. “Similarly, there is no legitimate reason for keeping the sponsors of earmarks or their intended beneficiaries under wraps,” Hamilton wrote.

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