As an investigative reporter, I’m accustomed to digging up information that’s been deliberately buried. But I underestimated the archeological excavation it would take to unearth details from a public document. Not just a public document, but a law passed by Congress and signed by the President, and one having to do with how the dollars spent on our nation’s defense are being allocated during a time when two wars are being waged.
I was looking for earmarks—pet projects lawmakers insert into spending bills, usually as favors for particular constituencies in their district or state. What I wanted to examine was whether the people and companies benefiting from these military-related earmarks had donated to the campaign of the person who had inserted their request in the legislation. In other words, I wanted to investigate whether members of Congress were reaping campaign dollars in return for their generosity in doling out tax dollars.
It’s a simple question, and naively I thought getting the answer would be relatively easy. But I’m an outsider to Washington, D.C., and it turned out that my reporting on this story taught me a surprising lesson about Capitol Hill. While Congress might be a cornerstone of American democracy, it is the most secretive public body I’d ever covered.
The only real public documents on Capitol Hill come in the form of press releases. In recent years, it’s become a common practice—among at least half of the lawmakers—to tout how they successfully added earmarks to pieces of legislation and thereby garnered mostly favorable stories from their hometown press. So it was to these press releases I was ultimately forced to turn, given that the actual documents in Congress—the kind I routinely am able to get from local and state governmental bodies—are secret. Though lawmakers passed the Freedom of Information Act to deal with such abuses of power in the wake of Watergate, the law covers only the executive branch. Congress made itself exempt.
Searching for Earmarks
I tried to plum the few documents that Congress does make public. At first, I felt pretty confident that they’d lead me to some answers. After all, while lawmakers control the purse strings, they do so through a legislative process. Earmarks have to be put in bills to become law. Surely, Congress can’t hide what is actually printed and even embossed in a public law.
As I started to read the 2007 defense appropriations bill, I found a few earmarks. I knew there had to be more. The Congressional Research Service had counted 16,000 earmarks among several appropriations bills in 2005, at a total cost of $52 billion. Where were the hundreds of earmarks I’d expected to find in this year’s defense department bill?
Fortunately, I stumbled across an article written by former Senate aide Winslow Wheeler. It offered a detailed guide to finding earmarks, and after reading it I gave Wheeler a call at the Center for Defense Information, a think tank where he now works. Earmarks aren’t actually in the law, he explained to me. They’re buried in the “joint explanatory statement,” a report intended to explain how the Senate and House resolved their differences on a particular bill. Wording in legislation tends to be carefully crafted to withstand scrutiny from the courts, but not so with the explanatory statement, an informal document that doesn’t carry the same legal burden.
It turns out that lawmakers slipped nearly 2,700 earmarks, costing nearly $12 billion, into the 382-page report that accompanied the defense appropriations bill. These earmarks were not easy to read, and I mean this literally. Congressional staffers had converted the text of the earmarks to images and shrunk the type down to a tiny 1/20 of an inch, making them illegible to my farsighted eyes and impossible to copy and paste. Even worse, the descriptions were so brief and cryptic as to resemble a secret code. For example, I read that Congress set aside $2.3 million for the Navy for “LCS ASW mission area commonality” and another $1.3 million for “Multispectral threat emitter system,” yet I still had no idea what any of this meant.
Despite the difficulty in knowing what had been earmarked, at least I was comforted in knowing we’d found them. My next step became figuring out which members of Congress had authored each one. The appropriations committees had such information, but they wouldn’t reveal it. I also sent out scores of e-mails and made dozens of phone calls to military officers at bases to find out more about the vendors who’d been granted the earmarks. Most feigned ignorance by saying either the contract hadn’t yet been awarded or that they simply didn’t know.
In the end, my best sources still turned out to be press releases sent out by lawmakers. As I searched the Web site of each of the 535 lawmakers, I found that about half had boasted about their earmarks.
Doing this often tedious research took months of work, even with the help of a couple of interns in the newsroom. Over time, we managed to construct a one-of-a-kind database of key information about all of the earmarks—including sponsors, recipients, how much each recipient gave to the campaign of the earmark’s sponsor, and how much recipients spent on lobbying. Now I am in the process of rebuilding this database so it is current for 2008. And once again, the process is time consuming and challenging, yet the work on it continues to receive full support from my editors despite two rounds of job reductions this year that—through shuffling of bodies—cut the size of our investigative team in half. With the extreme budget cuts journalists are enduring industrywide, I fear that readers will see fewer stories that require so much time and effort.
When the data were assembled, we were able to see the disturbing pattern of the close relationship between the inclusion of earmarks and campaign donations. It suggested that lawmakers who granted favors by inserting earmarks to defense companies were rewarded for it with campaign contributions. In all, we identified 500 companies that had received earmarks and, of those, nearly 80 percent had employees or political action committees that gave money to Congressional reelection funds over a period of six years. Their donations totaled more than $47 million. Additionally, these companies spent more than $160 million in 2006 alone to lobby for earmarks.
Stories Behind the Earmarks
Of course, numbers were not about to be able to tell the entire story, since the lawmakers are slipping earmarks into the defense appropriation bill to request that the Pentagon buy things that it hasn’t even requested. This practice is Congress’s way of ensuring no-bid contracts for favored companies. Once we decided to take a closer look at what actually happened to the items Congress had forced the military to buy, Hal Bernton, who covers the military for the Times, joined the project.
Microvision, Inc. received earmark funds to develop the Nomad, a helmet-mounted computer monitor. It was called “junk” by a soldier who helped evaluate it. Photo by Ted Baz/Courtesy of Microvision.
Helmet-Mounted Computer Monitors:
Our focus was on earmarks targeted at companies in the Pacific Northwest. Microvision Inc., which was developing a computer screen that is put onto soldiers’ helmets, had received $55 million in earmarks in recent years, and its executives were big campaign donors. On May 10, 2004, five Microvision executives each gave $1,000 to Washington Senator Patty Murray’s campaign. A month later, Murray announced that she had gotten a $5.5 million earmark for the company. Bernton tracked down soldiers in the Army’s Stryker Brigade, based out of Fort Lewis, Washington, who served in Iraq. They told us that hundreds of Microvision’s helmet-mounted computer monitors—mostly bought with earmarks—had been stored away in unopened boxes. Soldiers didn’t like them and didn’t want to test new equipment in battle, especially something that interfered with their vision in situations where their lives were at risk.
In August 2005, Microvision lost a competition set up by the Army to test various helmet-mounted monitors. Yet four months later, apparently acting on an earlier lobbying effort by Microvision, Senator Murray managed to get the company a $6 million earmark to sell 1,599 of the rejected devices to the Stryker Brigades. The Army gave the use-it-or-lose-it funds to Microvision to do further research.
Bernton also tracked down the story of a polyester T-shirt earmarked for Marines in Iraq. In late 2005, Congressman David Wu of Oregon got a $2 million earmark for InSport, a small athletic clothing company. Wu said Marines would be more comfortable in InSport’s polyester than in their standard-issue cotton shirts. But polyester melts when exposed to heat and was banned in early 2006 after a Marine, caught in an explosion, suffered burns over 70 percent of his body. His melted polyester shirt had to be cut from his body.
Despite the ban, the Marines went ahead and bought the InSport shirts, saying they could only be used in training. InSport later made a shirt with fire-resistant sleeves, but the Marines wouldn’t approve it for use in battle because most of the shirt remained polyester. Still, Congressman Wu got InSport another $1 million earmark last year to sell the shirts to the Marines.
InSport executives gave Wu’s campaign $6,100 on a single day in the spring of 2006. The day after the defense bill with the earmark passed in September 2006, one executive gave another $750 to Wu. Two others followed with identical donations within three weeks.
Neither the Navy nor the Coast Guard could use this patrol boat that they were forced to buy. It was transferred to the University of Washington and later to the National Weather Service. Photo by Thomas James Hurst/The Seattle Times.
I was also curious to learn what had happened to several boats Murray and others had forced the Navy and Coast Guard to buy from a tiny Edmonds, Washington company. The $4.5 million boat was big and fast, sort of a cross between a sports car and a recreational vehicle. The Coast Guard didn’t want it, so Murray put an earmark into a bill specifying that the Coast Guard had to buy “a currently-developed 85-foot fast patrol craft that is manufactured in the United States.” The only company making such a boat was the Edmonds company, Guardian Marine International.
The Coast Guard tested the boat but eventually gave it away to a sheriff’s office in California. The Navy didn’t want its boats either and, before one of the boats was even built, gave it to the University of Washington. But the university couldn’t find a use for it. So the boat sat idle for years on a university pier near downtown Seattle. Recently, the National Weather Service took it. Guardian Marine and the subcontractor who assembled the boat donated nearly $150,000 to the campaigns of those who helped with the earmarks.
We’ve posted our database online; it can be searched for any member of Congress or recipient of earmarks. Its information will reveal the relationship between this member’s legislative action and campaign contributions this member of Congress received from the earmark recipient.
Congress made some modest reforms last year and toyed briefly with a moratorium on earmarks. Each of the presidential contenders supported the moratorium proposal, which leads to speculation that the November election could have a big impact on the future of earmarks. Of course, the greatest impact would come if Congress increased its own accountability by opening its records and its processes to the public. It’s time for us in the news media to demand it.
David Heath, a 2006 Nieman Fellow, is an investigative reporter for The Seattle Times. For their series “The Favor Factory,” Heath and his colleague Hal Bernton won the national Clark Mollenhoff Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting and the 2008 Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for Distinguished Reporting of Congress. This story was featured on “Bill Moyers Journal.”