Earmarked for Success?

March 21, 2007 at 5:37 pm Leave a comment

Published: March 21, 2007

WASHINGTON, March 20 — Kirsten Gillibrand arrived in Congress two months ago, ready to tackle national problems like health care, immigration and the war in Iraq. But few issues are as challenging as the one she has been confronting for the past few weeks: picking pet projects for her district.

Huddled around a coffee table with her senior staff members inside her office on Capitol Hill, Representative Gillibrand has been poring over scores of requests from elected officials and community leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, who are turning to her for money as Congress begins hammering out the federal budget.

It is the bricks and mortar of legislative life, and, as Ms. Gillibrand has come to learn, the requests for federal aid range from the major (like $7 million to build a new police station in Saratoga Springs) to things that are obscure even to her (like $400,000 to renovate the James Vanderpoel House in Kinderhook).

“Who was Mr. Vanderpoel?” Ms. Gillibrand blurted out the other day as she went down the list of requests, known as earmarks in the shorthand of backroom politics. (This one, she learned, was for a home that the local historical society describes as a “a distinguished example of Federal Period architecture” in the 1820s.)

Ms. Gillibrand, 40, a Democrat whose overwhelmingly Republican district runs along the Hudson Valley from New York’s suburbs to the Adirondacks, agreed to give The New York Times a rare spectator’s seat around the table as such calculations were being made as part of a yearlong look at her life as a rookie congresswoman.

Her choices were not always clear-cut. For example, should she try to obtain financial help for the Opera House in Hudson, or for the Volunteer Fire Department in Clifton Park?

The lobbying was often intensely personal. A longtime acquaintance of the congresswoman, who runs a foundation called the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, was among the legions of people who dropped by seeking support. And the process seemed to be fraught with enough political peril to keep her up at night.

“I came up with that idea at literally 3 in the morning when I couldn’t sleep,” she said to her staff at a recent meeting, after proposing a novel way to get $6.8 million in funding for renovations at the Olympic center in Lake Placid. “It made sense at 3 in the morning.”

At the heart of Ms. Gillibrand’s deliberations over earmarks is a paradox. She rode into Congress, against great odds, partly on a wave of voter revulsion with Washington ethics. Democrats did their best to stoke that revulsion, campaigning against “special-interest earmarks,” which they said Republicans would secretly insert into spending bills at the behest of allies and contributors.

Ms. Gillibrand, a lawyer, argued that the secrecy of the earmarking process had contributed to the scandals that engulfed the Hill. Now she asserts that earmarks, when dispensed fairly and openly, are an important way of addressing local needs. And under new rules imposed by a new Democratic majority, she is required to attach her name to the pet projects she sponsors and to certify that she has no financial interest in the projects.

Clearly, her willingness to allow a reporter to observe at least some of her earmark deliberations seemed intended to show that the process has become more open. And she says she wants to wring the politics out of the earmarking process by requiring every project to pass a “greatest-need, greatest-good” test.

To critics of the earmarks process, it is not enough. Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that Ms. Gillibrand’s efforts at transparency, while laudable, barely scratched the surface of the problem, because lawmakers can still submit funding requests based on personal and political calculations.

“The way the process works is that Congress awards winners of taxpayer dollars on the basis of political muscle rather than a project’s merit,” he said.

On one recent morning, Ms. Gillibrand sat in her office with a purple marker staring at a board with the names of every county in District 20, no doubt mindful of her stated goal of sprinkling money evenly among all the counties.

“Which do you think is more important?” she asked her staff, when she got to choosing between a $1 million request to renovate a recreation center for teenagers and a $1.2 million request to build a community center for the elderly in Hudson. (In the end, the youth center climbed to the top of the list, before the senior center, with Ms. Gillibrand reasoning that Hudson was looking for a way to keep teenagers out of trouble.)

Once again showing “vote buying” in action… to see the whole story you can go to http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/21/nyregion/21freshman.html?_r=1&ref=politics&oref=slogin

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