In the fiscal 2008 omnibus appropriations bill Hillary Clinton received 261 earmarks, more than five times the number of any other presidential candidate. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, Clinton obtained 360 earmarks worth $2.2 billion from 2002 to 2006. This record establishes her as by far the worst abuser of earmarks among all presidential candidates in both parties.
Clinton's earmarks are an important issue for Democrats who worry about the growing corporate control over their party. But the earmark issue may be even more important in the general election because it could become the swing issue this fall allowing the presidency to remain in Republican hands.
In the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill, Clinton pushed for more earmarks than any other senator except the chair of the Armed Services Committee. Clinton received 26 earmarks worth about $148.4 million (by contrast, Obama had only one earmark, requested with several other senators, to help children with severe disabilities). Clinton has been particularly active in obtaining earmarks for defense companies in New York, helping them sidestep the normal competitive system for contractors. She's also raised more than $270,000 for her campaigns from these defense contractors.
Hillary Clinton's $1 million earmark for a museum to celebrate the 1969 Woodstock music festival could become one of the biggest issues of the 2008 campaign. Not only does it anger the culture conservatives who see Woodstock as nothing more than a bunch of pot-smoking naked hippies, but even the people with fond memories of the rock festival must acknowledge that a museum is not exactly the best symbol of its meaning, and that a million dollars should be spent by pandering politicians for this project. The Woodstock earmark was voted out, 52-42, on October 18, 2007, making it one of only two earmarks to be voted down (the other was $129,000 for the home of the perfect Christmas tree project in North Carolina).
The Woodstock earmark raises further questions about the corrupt system of obtaining earmarks. On June 21, 2007, Clinton and Charles Schumer's $1 million earmark for the Woodstock museum was approved by a Senate committee. Nine days later, billionaire Republican Alan Gerry, the driving force behind the museum, donated (with his wife) the maximum of $9,200 to Clinton's presidential campaign. That same week, Gerry and his family gave $20,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee run by Schumer. Since 2005, the Gerrys have donated $18,600 to Clinton.
This wasn't the only Clinton earmark in 2007 to raise questions about timing. On June 27, 2007, Clinton and Schumer earmarked $900,000 for the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where James D. Watson was the chancellor until he resigned in October 2007 for making racist remarks. Watson has donated more than $70,000 to political candidates and PACs, and gave $3,000 to Clinton's presidential campaign on May 17 and June 25.
The Los Angeles Times reported how Clinton had supported government funding for a major campaign contributor's plan to build "a mega-shopping mall complete with 10 Broadway-style theaters, an indoor river, a Tuscan village and a 39-story luxury hotel" called "Destiny" near Syracuse. Clinton arranged a $5 million earmark for transportation access, and $1 billion in federal bonding authority.
The Los Angeles Times also found that at least eight of Clinton's biggest fundraisers who brought in more than $100,000 in donations are affiliated with the beneficiaries of her earmarks. By contrast, Barack Obama had only gotten $10,000 in donations from some trustees of the Shedd Aquarium, which received one of his earmarks.
In mid-January 2008, Clinton received an important endorsement from Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem and a prominent black leader. But this endorsement is tainted by the fact that Clinton provided $1,431,500 in earmarks in the 2008 federal budget for Butts' Abyssinian Development Corporation and its youth and social service programs. Earmarks create at least the appearance of political patronage for nonprofit groups. In order to get money from politicians, these organizations must play the political game of offering their endorsements. Because earmarks are the arbitrary decisions of members of Congress, leaders of nonprofit groups are reluctant to risk losing a valuable source of free money.
Keith Ashdown, research director for the Taxpayers for Common Sense, told the Los Angeles Times that "Clinton has made aggressive use of the pay-to-play earmark game. According to the Los Angeles Times, New School University received $1.6 million in this year's defense budget and $6 million in previous years. Its president, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, once called Bill Clinton an unusually good liar, but since then Kerrey has endorsed Clinton in her senate and presidential campaigns. Three of the New School trustees have raised more than $100,000 for Clinton's campaign, and a former New School trustee is Norman Hsu, the infamous and now indicted Clinton fundraiser.
While Clinton has exploited earmarks for political gain in New York, Obama has led the fight to expose earmarks and change the system. Reason magazine noted that Obama's role in passing the Federal Funding and Tranparency Act "can't be overstated."
Obama, unlike Clinton, refuses to endorse any earmarks that directly benefit a private corporation. Since coming to the Senate, the Los Angeles Times discovered, Clinton had gotten $500 million in earmarks specifically benefiting 59 corporations, and she received donations from employees at 64% of those companies.
Obama was one of only two senators (with Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona) to release his requests for earmarks. Clinton and other legislators only have to reveal the earmarks that are approved, not all of their requests, and Clinton has opposed Obama's efforts to require open scrutiny of these requests. Obama's website offers his promise, "Obama will slash earmarks to no greater than year 2001 levels and ensure all spending decisions are open to the public." This may not sound like much, but it would result in a massive decline in earmarks.
Earmarks were one critical factor in the devastating decline of the Republican Party in recent years. The 2006 elections were a landslide for Democrats, largely because the Republican-controlled Congress was seen as corrupt and wasteful. The scandals of Reps. Randy Duke Cunningham and Jack Abramoff both involved earmarks and the payoffs from the beneficiaries. Cunningham was convicted on charges of taking millions in gifts from a military contractor in exchange for earmarks.
Republicans, after being burned by earmarks in the 2006, will try to turn the tables in 2008. In November 2007, 72 Republicans without the support of their leadership called for establishing a Joint Select Committee on Earmark Reform. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) noted, I get standing ovations when I talk about earmarks."
Although the media have ignored this issue in the Democratic primary race, the Republicans are likely to nominate a candidate who will make political corruption and earmarks a key component in the campaign. And Clinton's past record will give her no credibility to rein in the escalating use of earmarks, making it unlikely that she will be able to afford to fulfill many of her promises.
The Republican presidential candidates are unanimous in their condemnation of earmarks. Mitt Romney declared in a Dec. 21 press release, As President, I pledge to use every available method to eliminate wasteful earmarks in the federal budget."
John McCain declared during a Republican presidential debate on October 21, 2007, "I have fought against out-of- control and disgraceful spending that's been going on and I have saved the American people as much as $2 billion at one stroke. In case you missed it, a few days ago, Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock Concert Museum. Now, my friends, I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time."
McCain observed, "No one can be president of the United States that supports projects such as these. And I believe that wasteful spending has got to be eliminated. And I will have this debate and win because she is a liberal Democrat and I am a proud, reliable, consistent conservative Republican." McCain is right. Columnist Robert Novak noted that "Sen. John McCain on the campaign trail...is cheered for promising to veto bills with earmarked pork." Unless the press continues to ignore the corruption issue for the next year, any Republican presidential candidate could make a devastating critique of Hillary Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee.
But it's not just Republicans who hate pork barrel politics. The Boston Globe editorialized that earmarks "bring the whole appropriations process into disrepute."(Dec. 30, 2007) Markos Moulitsas Zniga, founder of Daily Kos, noted: "It's this sort of abuse, repeated many times over by many congresscritters, that drives the public's disillusionment with our Congress. Real reform on this front needs to happen." Ryan Alexander, President of Taxpayers for Common Sense, noted on Bill Moyers' website: "the earmarking process is a breakdown in democratic decision-making in the Congress."
The Democratic Congress has taken some steps to scale back earmarks. The first senate bill of the new Congress in 2007 focused on corruption, and the Democrats have turned back the rise in earmarks. According to a new website from the Office of Management and Budget tracking this information (created because of Obama's legislative proposals), there were 13,491 earmarks in the 2005 baseline for $18,942,858,000. After rising close to $30 billion in 2006, earmarks in the 2008 House/Senate conference bill dropped to 11,737 requests for $16,871,939,000.
But if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, then it is certain the Republican candidate will rail against her as a symbol of corruption in Washington. All but one Republican presidential candidate comes from outside Washington DC, and Sen. John McCain has strong credentials in attacking earmarks and government waste.
In an election when Democrats should be able to win easily by denouncing the corruption and waste of the Bush Administration, the reverse may occur if Clinton is the nominee. The anti-Washington sentiment raging across the country could easily turn against the Democrats (Congress already has ratings lower than Bush) unless their nominee is a clear reformer.
One reason why earmarks dominate our political system is the failure of the press to hold politicians accountable. In many cases, the media has actually embraced earmarks, such as the routine stories in local media about the grants acquired by legislators. A 2007 article in The Hill newspaper seemed to celebrate Clinton's ability to get more earmarks than many of her colleagues with more seniority. An Oct. 12, 2007 Washington Post article on the topic was headlined, "Earmarks Put Candidates On the Spot; Obama, Clinton Camps Defend Requests Made for Constituents." The article treated Obama and Clinton as if they had equivalent records on earmarks, noting that Obama had supported an earmark initiated by Sen. Dick Durbin to fund brain research at the University of Chicago, where Obama's wife had worked. Clinton arranged for a $3 million earmark to benefit hydrogen-fuel and hybrid technology at General Motors, and a lobbyist for GM is one of Clinton's biggest fundraisers.
However, the primary approach of the press toward earmarks his been complete silence. The Woodstock museum earmark got some coverage, especially in the conservative press, when it was first revealed last summer and then voted down in October. CNN's Situation Room featured a short report on Clinton's earmarks on November 9, 2007.
But nothing has ever been asked about earmarks in the Democratic debates or candidate interviews. On Dec. 23, 2007, Tim Russert lectured Ron Paul on Meet the Press for putting earmarks in bills even though he's opposed to them. Russert told Paul, "When you stop taking earmarks or putting earmarks in the spending bills, then I think you'll be consistent." However, neither Russert nor any of his colleagues have ever discussed the issue with regard to Hillary Clinton. Dan Morain, co-author of the important Los Angeles Times article on earmarks, told me: "No one in broadcast [media] spoke to me about the topic. Others have written about earmarks, but I have not seen much done in the context of the presidential campaign. I'm not sure why."
Last summer, Anderson Cooper promised on CNN (June 21, 2007), "We're going to continue to ask members of Congress about their earmark spending, seeking the truth, no matter how long it takes." Yet Cooper hasn't ever mentioned earmarks in covering the presidential race.
Considering how much media coverage has been devoted to bizarre misconceptions about race or gender, or the vast number of "horserace" stories about the latest polls, the failure of the media to mention earmarks is startling. Earmarks have a real impact on expanding the budget deficit by billions of dollars every year. And as part of the earmarks industry, lobbyists are hired to obtain the billions of dollars at stake. Washington now has almost 35,000 registered lobbyists, more than double the number in 2000.
Earmarks are much more than a symbolic issue about corruption in Washington. They represent a decisive difference between the two leading candidates in the Democratic race, and if Hillary Clinton emerges as her party's nominee, her embrace of earmarks could be a critical issue helping Republicans retain the presidency.
John K. Wilson is the author of two new books, "Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest" (obamapolitics.com) and "Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies" (collegefreedom.org). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.