Conservative group escalates earmarks war by infiltrating trainings
New videos of internal discussions on Capitol Hill about the public’s perception of earmarks are providing a window into Democratic concerns about reviving the controversial spending practice.
In a recent Zoom training for congressional staffers, a House Appropriations Committee aide tells participants that while “the optics” of a lawmaker steering an earmark to a campaign donor “look kind of bad,” the project could still be allowed under House rules so long as no family members are involved.
“I think what you’re saying is if you have somebody who’s building a [military construction] project, and his company contributes to your boss’s campaign, is that a conflict of interest?” Appropriations Deputy Staff Director Matt Washington told House staffers during the training.
“I think the optics are bad but the rules of the House would be sufficed because there is no immediate family interest,” Washington said.
When similar conflict of interest questions arose during a separate training, staffers for House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) repeatedly advised lawmakers’ offices to consult with the House Ethics Committee if they were unsure whether their proposed projects might violate new earmark rules.
Videos of trainings were provided to The Hill by the American Accountability Foundation (AAF), a newly formed conservative opposition research group.
The AAF said it gained access to the private trainings from a House lawmaker and then pressed DeLauro staffers on hypothetical situations about earmarks while posing as congressional aides. The group recorded the trainings and has since posted them online.
While the private advice from DeLauro staffers appeared to be consistent with the Appropriations panel’s public guidance on earmarks, the frank discussions over potential conflicts of interest and the public’s perception highlight the potential pitfalls for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who request pet projects for their home districts — commonly known as earmarks — but what DeLauro and appropriators have now rebranded as “community project funding.”
The AAF’s successful infiltration of the trainings marked the opening salvo in the right’s new war over earmarks after lawmakers recently restored them for the 117th Congress following a decade-long ban in Washington.
This is “what I’m going to spend my day and night doing. Digging through appropriations tables and report language at 11:30 at night on a Wednesday is not my idea of a fun time. I was glad when I got to put that into the past and we banned earmarks, but I’m going back to it again,” AAF co-founder Tom Jones said in an interview Tuesday.
Citing the late Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Jones called earmarks “the gateway drugs to overspending and a part of the culture of corruption that people hate about Congress.”
Jones has worked as a staffer for Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and ex-Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), and he was an opposition researcher for Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign in 2016.
Democrats on the Appropriations Committee, who continue to hold the earmarks trainings, called it the height of hypocrisy that an organization named the American Accountability Foundation would engage in deception.
“For a group that purports to concern itself with ethics, using fake identities, misrepresenting themselves as Congressional staff and surreptitiously recording meetings is hypocritical in the extreme,” Appropriations Committee spokesman Evan Hollander said in an email.
“However, what these right-wing hacks heard is what the Appropriations Committee has been talking about for months: our strong accountability and transparency rules that have won praise from experts across the political spectrum. To ensure compliance with all House Rules, the Committee has strongly advised Members to discuss any ethical concerns in their offices with the House Ethics Committee, which is exactly what these unethical operatives recorded our staff saying,” Hollander added.
In some of the training videos, Jason Gray, a DeLauro staffer who has worked for Republicans, was asked whether an earmark project would be disqualified if a private or government entity used a federal lobbyist who had donated to a sponsoring lawmaker to help secure funding.
Gray said such scenarios “raise a lot of red flags,” and said lawmakers should check with the Ethics Committee if they are worried about potential problems.
“What that starts to get into is you all needing to be mindful of those things and to protect your boss,” Gray said in the training. “If you are considering a project where you see those linkages, talk with Ethics. Can’t stress that enough.”
Gray repeats that advice in a second video, telling House staffers that the connections between lobbyists, campaign donors and earmarks are “all things you need to keep an eye on for coverage of your boss.”
“These are things that we’ve highlighted in the guidance as they fall more in the realm of the ethics side of things and the optics side surrounding project-based funding,” Gray said. “You all really need to be aware of what all the different connections are that are associated with the project.”
AAF also shared a full 40-minute video of a training session.
Jones said he received links to the Zoom trainings from a lawmaker’s office but declined to name the representative.
“I’m not gonna tell you that,” he said.
Jones said he was surprised that Appropriations staffers were taking a mostly hands-off approach in the trainings and urged lawmakers to run any questionable projects by the Ethics Committee.
Congressional aides are “going to walk over to the Ethics Committee and go, ‘Hey, I think my boss has got this scummy, sketchy project that he wants funded, can you make sure it’s cool?’ ” Jones said. “It’s like imagining Duke Cunningham was going to go to House Ethics and getting sign off on his bribe sheet that he had in the breast pocket of his jacket.”
“It’s just not conceivable, it’s crazy,” he said.
Duke Cunningham, a former GOP congressman from California, served eight years in prison after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors who later secured millions of dollars in federal contracts with Cunningham’s help. Former President Trump pardoned Cunningham on Jan. 20, his last day in office.
Corruption scandals involving Cunningham and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, along with Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” pushed Congress to ban earmarks in 2011. But they’ve made a comeback this year after congressional Democrats and House Republicans voted to restore them. Senate Republicans are weighing whether to bring them back. House GOP lawmakers approved the move in a 102-84 vote, with most opposition coming from the Freedom Caucus and other conservatives.
Proponents argue that earmarks help grease the wheels of a gridlocked Congress and make the lawmakers more productive and bipartisan. They also argue that earmarks put the power of the purse in the hands of the legislative branch rather than unelected officials in federal agencies.
Jones, however, said he would rather see an independent procurement officer “calling balls and strikes” and picking which projects get funded, not lawmakers who are biased by campaign contributors.
“You get to wear an orange jumpsuit when you do this kind of [corruption] in the normal procurement process,” he said. “You get reelected when you do it in the United States House of Representatives.”
The debate is intensifying as Congress gets ready to possibly move on infrastructure legislation. Biden’s economic team is said to be preparing a massive $3 trillion spending proposal that includes infrastructure projects.
Appropriators say they have imposed a strict set of new guidelines to protect against waste, abuse and corruption. Among them: Neither the lawmaker nor their immediate family can have an interest in the project; each lawmaker can only make up to 10 requests, which will appear on a public online database; lawmakers must demonstrate public or community support for a project; and for-profit entities are barred from receiving funding.
“By restricting Community Project Funding to state and local governments and non-profits, banning for-profit recipients, ensuring Members and their families have no financial interest in any projects, implementing complete transparency about requests, rigorously vetting all of them, and requiring GAO audits,” Hollander said, referring to the Government Accountability Office, “the Committee has acted boldly to build public trust.”
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