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August 18, 2006
Earmarks, Inc.

(Note: This was the post I was writing when the laptop died. Thanks to good friends who had an advance look at the effort, I can post it now.)

Earlier, the Heritage Foundation profiled legislation that provided over $1.5 billion dollars to the Washington DC Metro System, which Dr. Ron Utt called the biggest pork-barrel project in American history. Representative Tom Davis offered HR 3496 as an amendment to the Deep Water Resources Act, even though his boondoggle for the transit system had little to do with deep water or any other kind of resources. At the time, Dr. Utt questioned Rep. Davis’ motives in providing such a thick slice of federal revenue to Maryland and Virginia:

Beyond such posturing lies a legislative effort whose origins sprang from an act of constituent service, and chief among the constituents served is the Congressman himself. As originally introduced in July 2005, H.R. 3496 was written to force a resolution of a dispute between Mr. Davis and Metro over its plan to sell 3.75 acres of land it owns beside a rail station to a developer who wanted to incorporate the land into a large, mixed-use development near Mr. Davis’s home. Concerned about traffic congestion and the displacement of suburban charm by urban density, Mr. Davis threatened to do something about it. While most Americans can only complain about encroaching development, Mr. Davis can use his congressional powers to prohibit it, and H.R. 3496 was written to do exactly that. Specifically, Section 4(a) of the bill prohibits Metro from selling the 3.75 acres in question until it has submitted a detailed study of the proposed land sale and planned development to Congress. But as Metro has since sold the land to the developer, this legislative prohibition is pointless, and all that remains of the bill is a massive federal and local bailout of the faltering system.

Rep. Davis took umbrage at this description of his project, and of his motivations in championing it. After Dr. Utt arguments against the bill appeared in the Washington Examiner, Rep. Davis fired off a letter to the Examiner:

It is a journalistic travesty that the Examiner has decided to re-write poorly reasoned press releases and masquerade them as editorials ("Don't give Metro the 'largest earmark in history,'" July 19). Your editorial is based entirely - and indeed quotes at length - from a piece that originated with the Heritage Foundation, written by an author who never met a transit system he didn't want to kill. The end result was an editorial that betrayed a stunning ignorance of my Metro legislation, the legislative process, and the importance of Metro to the federal government and to the region as a whole. …

Calling my legislation an "earmark" and a "federal bailout" for Metro is both incorrect and inflammatory. The legislation approved by the House on Monday does not authorize one nickel of federal money. The money for Metro was approved on June 29, when the House agreed to take a small portion of offshore drilling royalties and dedicate them to Metro for the next 10 years. That was possible because of the work my Government Reform Committee has done in recovering additional royalty payments the Clinton Administration failed to identify or collect. Nothing was "earmarked" - instead, a fiscally responsible source of the funding was identified.

Since 1965, Congress has on four previous occasions infused the Metro system with federal funding, recognizing the unique relationship between the federal government and the transit agency responsible for the daily commute of so many federal employees. With each vote, the Congressional Record illustrates the Congress' belief that the Nation's Capital requires mass transit for the day-to-day operation of the federal government.

Davis tried mightily to convince people that when Congress spends $1.5 billion, it somehow fails to qualify as “federal funding”. His argument that the money comes from revenue the government received through an overdue debt collection doesn’t make it any less the property of the taxpayers; it could easily have been applied to the federal deficit rather than put into the pockets of Maryland and Virginia. He contradicts himself in almost the next breath anyway, explaining how federal funding for the Metro has plenty of precedent.

All of this hides the fact that Davis has some interests beyond good government. The Washington Post, whose editorial board supported the Metro funding, reported shortly afterward that Rep. Davis has often pressed for legislation that allow for easier passage of pork and looser controls and oversight on spending:

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and his staff have worked closely with corporations and their lobbyists to help write federal procurement legislation.

Davis said the effort is intended to streamline contracting and make it more efficient. But some procurement experts and federal investigators said the legislation, called the Services Acquisition Reform Act, contains provisions that would loosen federal oversight on contracts and allow practices that are susceptible to abuse and fraud. …

[Angela B. Styles, the former chief of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the Office of Management and Budget] described 13 of the legislation's 29 provisions as "problematic" and said they would result in "policy changes that the administration cannot support." Among them: a plan to allow more contractors to bill the government for their "time and materials" with no fixed cap on the total amount.

While some of the provisions have been adopted, Davis continues to work on winning approval for the others.

Why would Rep. Davis continue to pursue pork-friendly policy with such tenacity? Apparently, it pays to do so. Looking at the campaign-finance disclosure site Open Secrets, it becomes apparent who supports the Virginia Congressman:

• Rep. Davis gets the second-highest amount of contributions from public-sector unions – and he is the only Republican in the Top 20.
• Contractors and real-estate companies donate a lot of money to Rep. Davis. They total over $130,000 in campaign contributions.
• Metro contractors like Rep. Davis, too. Bechtel gave $5,000 in this election cycle, for example.
• The House Subcommittee on Standards of Official Conduct warned Davis about the appearance of impropriety when his wife’s employment with a government contractor came to light. Davis later claimed that the Ethics Committee had “thoroughly vetted” his wife’s relationship with ICG Government.

The Metro bailout offered by Rep. Davis involved real estate deals, and public-sector unions service the Metro employees. Any expansion and improvements would create opportunities for contractors to get federal contracts.

Rep. Davis may well support this measure out of pure conviction, but the evidence shows that he hasn’t too much incentive to side on fiscal responsibility and limited government. At the very least, this shows why the principle of federalism and the efforts to reduce the amount of money given to politicians are so important in reducing the temptations to enrich one’s friends and supporters.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 18, 2006 5:12 PM

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