By Their Earmarks Ye Shall Know Them

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Nose Knows is miffed. Why should shyster lobbyist Jack Abramoff, felonious ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) get all the credit for Capitol Hill pork landing on the endangered species list?

For years, Nose Knows has proposed the politically incorrect line of reform for ending non-competitive earmarks by Congress, a practice that has led to much wrack and ruin in the children and youth field. For example, in an earmark spread in the Chronicle of Philanthropy last July Nose was quoted as saying, “Only a stack of constituent requests that would fill an Iowa corn silo will ever convince Congress that earmark losers vastly outnumber earmark winners – and that earmarks could be an Election Day loser as well.”

The response has been most gratifying, with kids’ congressional earmarks in fiscal 2005 totaling about 5,000. For every winner, there are multiple losers whose identities are unknown but to the Great Legislature in the sky. Nose hopes that most are sore losers who will throw the bums out in November.

In his State of the Union address in January, President George W. Bush said, “I am pleased that the members of Congress are working on earmark reform, because the federal budget has too many special-interest projects.” It’s a great sound bite, but the president went on to urge that he be given line-item veto authority – a power shift that even this most supine of modern Congresses will not support.

Instead, earmark opponents, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), are pressing for reform as part of a new package to ease the stranglehold that Capitol Hill’s estimated 11,000 to 30,000 hired guns now wield over many tax and spending decisions. Just during the first six months of 2005, says PoliticalMoneyLine, lobbyists spent more than $1.16 billion influencing the 535 members of Congress and their staffs. The 2005 total tab is expected to have hit $2.4 billion, or about $4.5 million per member.

Some members of Congress, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), have disingenuously blamed lobbyists, whose spending has increased by 40 percent since 1999.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sees it differently, saying, “For more than a decade, Speaker Hastert and House Republicans have benefited from their systematic culture of corruption at the expense of the American people.”

Replies Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the newly elected House majority leader, “When I hear the Democratic Party leaders throwing around terms like ‘culture of corruption,’ I have to think ‘You oughta know.’ ”

Boehner oughta know, too. His Political Action Committee, dubbed Freedom Project, has an all-lobbyist board and has raised about $6 million over the past decade, with most donors having business before the House Education and Workforce Committee, which he chaired before his recent promotion.

While Boehner claims to eschew earmarks, he has shown himself willing to push pet projects. For instance, in June 2002 he held a daylong hearing, featuring golfer Jack Nicklaus, to recognize the efforts of the St. Augustine, Fla.-based First Tee, run by Joe Louis Barrow. Its mission is to get disadvantaged youth involved in golf. In 2004, the group scored a hole-in-one, sinking a $2 million earmark in the budget of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), and $1 million through the Department of Education.

While Congress brawls over sham “reforms,” like eliminating member and staff junkets paid for by phony nonprofits, earmark aficionados worry about ending legislative practices that never make it into high school civics textbooks. Reformers in both parties are pressing for actual public hearings on published lists of earmark candidates. And – get this – reformers want all legislation, including earmarks, to be publicly available 24 hours before any vote. Imagine: They’d actually have to know what’s in a spending bill before they vote for it.

Several pieces of legislation, including one aptly entitled the Pork Barrel Reduction Act, are taking shape, with a transparency proposal being advanced by Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) the most likely to become law.

The notoriety of earmarks is bad news for K Street. Here’s how the earmark system really works: A lobbyist, often with a client or client surrogate from the home district in tow, pitches the need for pretty much anything to a member of Congress. After that, it’s basically a courtship dance between lobbyists armed with their clients’ shopping lists and the members, especially those on the appropriations committees, seeking to keep their constituents and campaign contributors (the lobbyists) happy.

As for what’s best for the nation’s children, that’s rarely in the equation. The keepers of the keys to the treasury are largely anonymous staffers who wield enormous power. It’s easier to find out what’s in the president’s daily intelligence briefing than to learn who on the appropriations staff is drawing up the final list of approved earmarks. That approval comes at a closed House-Senate conference committee meeting.

Only when the spending bills are sent back to each chamber for an often perfunctory second vote does the list of earmark winners begin to become public. For those seeking an earmark, their moment comes as suddenly as for bettors at a race track.

Some hold winning tickets, others win nothing. Win or lose, the lobbyists get paid.

Some recent children- and youth-related earmarks include $1 million to for-profit Channel One for an anti-gambling campaign in schools, $100,000 to suburban Bronxville, NY (median home value: $960,000), for public school video surveillance equipment, and $2.5 million to the National Shooting Sports Foundation for “Project Safe Child.” (Maybe they’ll rename it the Dick Cheney Youth Marksmanship Program.)

Some in Congress, such as McCain and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), refuse to ask for pork projects. But for the rest, budget time is an earmark-inserting rat race to bring home the bacon. While few national youth service leaders will defend the practice privately, in public they shower praise on those members of Congress who get them earmarks in the federal budget.

But a few courageous national executives will speak about the earmarking system for the record. What emerges is a tale of ambivalence, frustration and powerlessness to change the de facto system for obtaining federal funds.

Christopher Heller of Phoenix-based Kids Voting USA tells Nose, “I’m not going to defend earmarks. If we can all go through the front door, then do away with earmarks.” From 2001 to 2005, Kids Voting won earmarks totaling almost $1.7 million from the budget of the Department of Education.

Michael Piraino, president of the National Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Association, notes that the group’s grant ($11 million in fiscal 2005) receives considerable Capitol Hill scrutiny, perhaps because it’s a budget line item under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. But he acknowledges that most earmarks are approved “without thought or attention.” Having a steady stream of funding from Congress, says Piraino, is “a reasonable way” of doing business and “more efficient.” It allows the national office to “develop supports” for local capacity among National CASA’s 900 affiliates in 49 states.

Gary Walker, president of Philadelphia-based Public/Private Ventures (P/PV), sees shortcomings with all of the avenues for direct federal funding that are open to children- and youth-serving agencies. He notes that the state formula grant system has its problems, too, often spreading the money thinly across each state. Except for earmarks, he wonders, how can national groups get funds for expansion or to mount large-scale demonstration efforts, when Congress is cutting domestic discretionary spending every year? At least with earmarks, Walker says, “they can go get some money” from Congress.

He acknowledges that the current hybrid system of noncompetitive grant seeking on Capitol Hill and competitive grant making in the executive branch for whatever funds are left over is a “troubling combination.” Since 2003, P/PV has received five earmarks totaling $5.15 million.

Heller of Kids Voting is also candid: “Live by earmarks, die by earmarks.” For fiscal 2006, the loss of Kids Voting’s expected $250,000 earmark eliminated one-quarter of the national group’s budget, Heller says.

One defender – at least of line-item earmarks – is Nancy Chandler, executive director of the Washington-based National Children’s Alliance (NCA). The alliance has received five earmarks totaling $2.85 million since 2003, including $850,000 in the Justice Department’s fiscal 2006 budget. Thanks to the 1990 Victims of Child Abuse Act, the NCA has received an annual line-item appropriation since 1991.

“It has worked in our favor,” says Chandler. NCA has 614 program members in 45 state chapters. “We wouldn’t be on the map today without” the steady federal support, she says.

In St. Louis, Sue Stepleton, president of Parents as Teachers National Center (PAT), joins P/PV’s Walker in endorsing earmarks as a necessary evil in a broken system. PAT “is not looking for an entitlement or for general operations,” Stepleton says. Rather, she says, her group’s four earmarks from 2001 to 2005, totaling $6 million, have been for “specific work” that enabled PAT to make “a plateau jump.”

The nonprofit, with an annual budget of $7.5 million, has no earmark this year. But Stepleton, a veteran Missouri child welfare administrator before joining PAT, says that because of the underfunding of children’s services, “I have to applaud” the more flexible earmarks. However, she adds, “I can’t say we ought to have thousands” of earmarks.

Youth Today’s review of federal appropriations for fiscal 2005 turned up 4,915 earmarks aimed at a plethora of children and youth services.

Few groups or their lobbyists want to talk, even off the record, about earmarks. Take the Gaithersburg, Md.-based National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), run by President Roland Warren. In 2001, Warren replaced Wade Horn, now the assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Each year since 2004, the conservative group has received $3 million for “general support” from OJJDP.

The well-connected NFI uses no outside lobbyists, but lists $2.7 million in government support in its 2004 federal tax return – about 65 percent of its $4.1 million budget for that year. But there is no whiff of taxpayer funding on NFI’s website. “Why would we put that on?” asks Vincent Di Caro, a spokesman for the group.

If there is such a thing as a socially responsible lobbyist, then Gordon MacDougall of the Beacon Consulting Group would be it. MacDougall, who was an Appropriations Committee staffer under former Rep. John Porter (R – Ill.), thinks limited reforms are in the offing, but that “earmarks will continue to be part of the process.” Along with more transparency will come sharp cuts in the number of earmarks and a steady decline in discretionary grant making, says McDougal, whose clients include Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the Nurse-Family Partnership.

Perhaps. On balance, the status quo method for direct federal funding of kids’ programs is the best of several bad options.

That’s nonsense, says Bob Mecum, executive director of Lighthouse Youth Services in Cincinnati for the past 30 years. That “doesn’t serve the nation well,” Mecum says. Instead, “well-informed decisions are subjugated to short-term political gain.”

Most of Lighthouse’s 14 programs are in Ohio’s 1st Congressional District, represented by Rep. Steve Chabot (R). Chabot is one of the few members of the House who will not seek earmarks, on principle. “I see his point of view,” says Mecum, but that puts his agency of 253 full-time staffers “absolutely at a competitive disadvantage with other youth-serving agencies” nationwide. Earmarks, he says, cause “the well to run dry for others,” leaving “less for the competitive process” – no small matter, when Lighthouse’s annual budget is $16.25 million. That includes three competitive grants from the Family and Youth Services Bureau of HHS.

Hatching Earmarks

Once upon a time, earmarking a fixed amount of funds for a particular group or local public agency was a rarity on Capitol Hill. In the youth field, the Reno, Nev.-based National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) was the first to slip directly into the budget in the early 1980s. Others soon found a slot in the budget of OJJDP, then run by Alfred Regnery, a right-wing ideologue unpopular with both parties on Capitol Hill. Better that funding decisions be made by the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic House, went the rationale of the day.

Soon the judges had plenty of company, including a consortium of six law-related education (LRE) groups, DARE and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA). In fiscal 1994, the last budget before the GOP took full control of Congress, NCJFCJ had two earmarks totaling $2.8 million. What’s more, its then-affiliated National CASA had another $4.5 million. The National Coordinated LRE had $9.4 million, DARE received $1.2 million and the BGCA won $2.5 million.

But that proved to be the lull before the earmark storm. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, there were 4,155 earmarks totaling $29 billion in 1994. After a decade of GOP control of Congress, the total had risen to 14,211, with a price tag of $53 billion. In fiscal 2005, the total hit 15,877. Hundreds of children and youth organizations went along for the ride on the taxpayer-funded gravy train.

Then, things went awry. No, silly – not because of the federal budget deficit that last year is expected to have totaled a stunning $400 billion-plus, or because of Washington’s pay-to-play rules of political engagement. Instead, the bring-home-the-bacon system totters, thanks to Abramoff, the greed of ex-Rep. Cunningham, and Sen. Steven’s notorious earmarking of an Alaskan $223 million bridge too far.

This year, disaster struck many children and youth programs when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) decided to nix $1.4 billion in earmarks in the Labor/HHS/Education appropriations bill.

The first casualties of the political storm fell on groups expecting money from federal agencies that are covered in the earmark-less Labor/HHS/Education appropriations bill. Suddenly, for those within a nose of the finish line, their bets were worthless.

It was just dumb luck – all pleading from paid lobbyists notwithstanding – that many youth groups had earmarks in another of the 13 appropriations bills that go with the approximately $2.5 trillion budget. Most large national youth-serving groups are earmarked in OJJDP. The reason is simple; it’s an easy target. So the likes of Big Brothers Big Sisters ($7 million), Girl Scouts of the USA ($2 million) and the juvenile court judges ($1.75 million) were spared the earmark ax that fell on many other agencies.

Others were not so fortunate. For example, Communities in Schools (CIS) and its affiliates landed eight earmarks totaling $3.71 million in 2005, including $1.3 million directly to CIS headquarters in Alexandria, Va. Six of the eight grants were in the departments of Education or Labor, and their renewal was presumably eliminated, along with everyone else’s earmarks.

This year, two grants to CIS programs in Sumter County and Albany, Ga., garnered a miserly total of $75,000, and they survived simply because they were in the Department of Justice appropriations. CIS is no slouch when it comes to earmarks. In 1994, the group landed $10 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a coup that alone should win CIS President Bill Milliken a spot in the youth earmarking hall of fame.

Not all pork is created equal. It comes in three varieties. The golden earmark is actually a line item in the federal budget. Only a select few are ensconced in this enviable position. To get there, a nonprofit (in theory) has to be written into authorizing legislation. In this group are National CASA ($11.8 million in fiscal 2006), the National Children’s Alliance ($1.35 million), BGCA ($85 million), Reading Is Fundamental ($25.3 million) and the Points of Light Foundation ($10 million).

One tier down are “hard earmarks,” in which the recipient group is named along with a specific grant amount. Among the thousands of children and youth groups in this desirable category are Public Allies Leadership ($100,000) in Milwaukee, Girls Inc. ($200,000) in Holyoke, Mass., and Dakota Boys & Girls Ranch ($750,000) in Minot, N.D.

Next come similar groups that are named to receive funds, but no amount is specified. That requires negotiating with some federal agency on the scope of work and amount, but most of these “soft earmarks” land in the money.

Ultimately the damage that earmarking causes the youth service field is most keenly felt in advocacy. Thirty years ago, the dozen or so national youth-serving agencies worked in concert for progressive youth policies that would benefit all – including all local youth-serving agencies. Walker, who retired from P/PV, breaks the field’s omerta, observing that national groups (there are now hundreds) “are doing well themselves,” but leaders of national youth-serving agencies now “have no obligation to push for strong [youth] policies” for disadvantaged youth.

Walker asks plaintively, “What do we do?”