President Barack Obama’s ban on earmarks in the $825 billion economic stimulus bill doesn’t mean interest groups, lobbyists and lawmakers won’t be able to funnel money to pet projects.
They’re just working around it — and perhaps inadvertently making the process more secretive.
The projects run the gamut: a Metrolink station that needs building in Placentia, Calif.; a stretch of beach in Sandy Hook, N.J., that could really use some more sand; a water park in Miami.
There are thousands of projects like those that once would have been gotten money upfront but now are left to scramble for dollars at the back end of the process as "ready to go" jobs eligible for the stimulus plan.
The result, as The Associated Press learned in interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers, lobbyists and state and local officials, is a shadowy lobbying effort that may make it difficult to discern how hundreds of billions in federal money will be parceled out.
"’No earmarks’ isn’t a game-ender," said Peter Buffa, former mayor of Costa Mesa, Calif. "It just means there’s a different way of going about making sure the funding is there."
It won’t be in legislative language that overtly sets aside money for them. That’s the infamous practice known as earmarking, which Obama and Democratic congressional leaders have agreed to nix for the massive stimulus package, expected to come up for a House vote this week.
Instead, the money will be doled out according to arcane formulas spelled out in the bill and in some cases based on the decisions of Obama administration officials, governors and state and local agencies that will choose the projects.
"Somebody’s going to earmark it somewhere," said Howard Marlowe, a consultant for a coalition working to preserve beaches.
Lobbyists are hard at work figuring out ways to grab a share of the money for their clients, but the new rules mean they’re doing so indirectly — and sometimes in ways that are impossible to track.
Congressional earmarks have had a bad name since the 2004 scandal that sent superlobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison and earned the congressional spending committees a new nickname: "The Favor Factory."
Obama, who campaigned promising a more transparent and accountable government, is advocating a system that will eventually let the public track exactly where stimulus money goes through an Internet-powered search engine. In addition, Democratic lawmakers have devised an elaborate oversight system, including a new board to review how the money is spent.
But none of that will happen until after the bill becomes law. Even critics of the earmarks system acknowledge that specifying projects upfront offers some measure of transparency.
"We hate earmarks, but at least it’s a way of tracking where influence is had," said Keith Ashdown of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "There is a challenge now that projects will be added behind closed doors without a paper trail."
Indeed, some lawmakers hearing from local groups say they’re doing their own lobbying of governors and state and local officials who could have say-so over the funds.
"I’ve talked to my governor and suggested some things I think are important in our area," said Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who represents St. Petersburg, Fla. "He knows what the needs are."
Democratic Rep. Ed Pastor of Arizona suggested it’s not entirely accurate to say there will be no earmarks in the measure. "There are and there aren’t," Pastor said. "A lot of it depends on what the formula looks like."
For instance, the House measure, which includes $358 billion for road, water and energy programs among others, gives priority to transportation projects in high-unemployment areas that could be begun and completed quickly and that state and metropolitan transportation authorities have included in their long-term plans.
In California, Buffa, now board chairman of the Orange County Transportation Authority, said he’s changed his strategy from asking for specific projects to pleading for more favorable general guidelines, including more money for infrastructure projects overall and a formula that lets cities — not states — decide how to spend it.
His organization has enlisted Potomac Partners, a large firm that specializes in lobbying for project spending, to help.
In most cases, lawmakers know exactly which projects in their districts can benefit from the money, even though the legislation won’t spell them out. State and local officials have released lists of projects that could start quickly and be completed within a few years.
In Orange County, they include freeway improvements and the Placentia Metrolink station. The American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, which is pushing for more water projects to be funded, wants repair and restoration of beaches from Sandy Hook, N.J., to Newport Beach, Calif.
Members of Congress are privately outlining their priorities, too.
"Everybody’s making their list and checking it twice," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader. "You are inevitably going to have a lot of projects that are not going to pass the smell test."
Some groups are careful not to get too specific, fearing that public scrutiny could draw unwelcome attention to projects easily caricatured as special-interest goodies, such as a 2007 earmark for spinach growers that found its way into an Iraq war spending bill or the now-infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska.
The United States Conference of Mayors released a 300-plus-page list of some $150 billion in "ready-to-go" projects that quickly became fodder for criticism. It included money for the Miami water park, which McConnell has ridiculed publicly, and a skate park in Portland, Maine.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials was more guarded about its list of 5,000 projects totaling $64 billion. No specific projects were mentioned — just the number in each state and an overall dollar amount — making it impossible for lawmakers, advocacy groups or members of the public to criticize any one item.
Peter J. "Jack" Basso, an association executive, said it’s up to states to decide what goes on their "ready-to-go" wish lists, but that the projects must meet rigorous tests including clearing environmental reviews.
"We really rely on them to pick things that, frankly, are not bridges to nowhere," Basso said.