Want an Earmark? Mainers Make Video Requests

Pingree Posts Funding Appeals on Website

Posted April 23, 2010 at 6:20pm

Although House leadership requires Members to post all earmark requests that they send to the Appropriations Committee on their websites, one lawmaker is taking the practice a step further.

Constituents who petitioned Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) for funding for fiscal 2011 were asked do it on camera. Her office then posted the videos to her website, where visitors could comment on the projects.

Pingree said the move makes the earmarks process more transparent and also lends a public relations element to the oft-maligned ritual — especially this year, when Republican leadership barred their Members from bringing home the bacon and are throwing barbs at Democrats for being the sole purveyors of pork-barrel projects.

“A lot of times people think of earmarks as some mysterious thing that goes to some weird corporate entity that has nothing to do with your life,” Pingree said. “We think it takes some of the mystery out of the earmarks process.”

The webpage boasts 102 videos with appeals ranging from a lofty $5 million to help the University of Maine engineer blast-resistant, reusable wooden military structures, to a relatively modest $400,000 to fund an extension of a bicycle path on the Androscoggin River.

“We also wanted people who made requests to know that a request is something that goes through a lot of steps and consideration and is a public thing,” she said. “It’s not like you just step into a back room and voila.”

A few organizations chose not to go through the video process, however, including a nonprofit whose executive director was out of state and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, whose representatives didn’t want to talk on camera about military construction. (Pingree’s office doesn’t require that the videos be made, but it encourages them.) And the University of Maine made its own semi-professional videos.

But the majority of the requesters simply perched themselves in Pingree’s office with a large wooden cutout of a Maine lobster serving as the backdrop. Some brought charts, some brought booklets, but mostly, the constituents just anxiously asked for cash.

“People were a little shy on occasion, but, you know, this is not a big setup with fleet lights,” said Willy Ritch, Pingree’s communications director. “It was a little Flip cam on a tripod with a wireless mic.”

The videos could help democratize the process, he added. Showing average folks making requests could galvanize others to do the same. And it could encourage like-minded groups to work together.

The move is drawing praise from the Sunlight Foundation, whose policy director, John Wonderlich, said, “This kind of experimentation is great.”

“Video can be a really powerful medium, so it could certainly humanize the process or humanize the requester. But the big thing is that these requests are being made publicly,” Wonderlich said. “Even two years ago, the idea of posting all the earmark requests online was a nonstarter.”

Last year, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and his Senate counterpart, Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), started requiring Members to post their requests on their websites and explain the earmark’s purpose.

Pingree’s office puts asterisks next to the requests that she forwards on to the committee. Out of more than 100 requests, just three didn’t make the cut:
$2 million to build organic produce greenhouses, $40,000 to build beehives in school gardens and $500,000 for a community health center.

Pingree is the first Member to videotape requests so far, but other Members are also experimenting with making earmark requests more interactive.

Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) held a virtual hearing where constituents commented on applications, and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) has an oversight panel review the requests and make recommendations to her.

Pingree said she’s trying to encourage other Members to follow suit with the videos and even trying to slip language into legislation that would mandate the practice.

Meanwhile, visitors to Pingree’s D.C. office have a new way to sign in: on an iPad.

The innovative device has replaced the ancient clipboard as the preferred method of making your mark. For now, the iPad just has a sign-in page and a Flickr slideshow, but Pingree, a self proclaimed “Macintosh geek,” said she has big plans.

“You can do anything with it. You can have them watching C-SPAN while they’re sitting there and watch you speaking in a committee hearing. Or you can have them watch the news or a tour of other things you can do when you visit Washington,” she said. “Or we could have a Scrabble contest going on.”