Uneven response on House earmarks

Delegation varies in visibility of data

Niki Tsongas said she is ‘an advocate of openness and transparency’ in publicly disclosing funding requests. Niki Tsongas said she is ‘an advocate of openness and transparency’ in publicly disclosing funding requests.
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / July 12, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Despite a new requirement for disclosure, some members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation have tucked lists of requests for special appropriations, known as earmarks, in obscure corners of their official websites, making the proposals more difficult for the public to find.

While several members of the Bay State delegation do provide clear links on their websites of the earmarks they file — some even marked in red letters — four other members place them where they are less obvious. Those sites appear to follow the letter, but not always the spirit, of the new rule.

Voters seeking to view the earmark funding requested by Representative Niki Tsongas would be hard-pressed to find it, unless they stumbled across a press release from March 2010, listed amid routine statements on pending legislation and notices of Congress on Your Corner events.

Tsongas, who defined herself recently as “an advocate of openness and transparency’’ in publicly disclosing all of her funding requests, said in a statement to the Globe that she remains so, and noted that she began releasing lists of her earmarks before House leaders required it. Tsongas aides said she has sent out press releases when she files her earmark requests.

Along with Tsongas, Edward J. Markey of Malden, William Delahunt of Quincy, and John Olver of Amherst have had their earmarks listed in obscure places. Late last week, after the inquiries from the Globe, Olver updated his site to include a more prominent mention of his requests.

Aides to the congressional members said they are not deliberately hiding their earmark requests, and would attempt to make them more prominent on their sites.

The disclosure requirement, which began last year, was designed to restore credibility to a system that has spurred House investigations into links between earmarks, which are provisions added to a bill that direct money to a specific project, and lobbyists who contribute to campaigns. At issue is whether some lawmakers have sought funding for special interests that, in return, contribute to the lawmaker’s reelection campaign. Such a quid pro quo is illegal.

None of the Massachusetts lawmakers has been targeted with investigations by the House Ethics Committee, but a Globe review last year of their defense-related earmarks showed that some Massachusetts companies getting funds had also contributed to delegate campaigns.

House leaders have recently taken the additional step of banning earmarks for private companies; such appropriation requests for nonprofit agencies and local governments are still permitted. The Senate continues to permit earmarks for profit-making firms.

Advocates for greater transparency decried some representatives’ practice of burying disclosures on official websites.

“They’re being too cute and too clever by half,’’ said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group that tracks earmarks. “There’s a certain level of cynicism when you’re hiding this information on your website. You’re only displaying it because you have to, and you’re not displaying it very well.’’

This year, the 10-member House delegation has submitted 576 earmarks worth $1.4 billion.

In the coming months, some of the requests will be inserted in spending bills and voted on, and the money will start flowing. Successful earmarks will be touted prominently in press releases and ribbon-cuttings.

In 2009, House and Senate rules began to require lawmakers to list their earmark requests on their websites; those not listed would not be considered for legislative approval. But there is no requirement about where they have to be placed on the site.

President Obama, in his State of the Union address, called on Congress to develop a single repository for all earmark requests to be posted. Legislation to do that is pending.

In the Senate, John Kerry has a “federal funding’’ link on his homepage that lists all of his earmark requests. Senator Scott Brown has said he won’t submit any requests this year, and he doesn’t have any earmark information on his site.

The House Committee on Appropriations has started posting links to lawmakers’ listing of earmarks on their websites. But unless constituents in Lowell or Ludlow know to go to that site, they may never find the earmarks requested by their representative.

Several Massachusetts House members do prominently display their earmark requests, including Barney Frank of Newton, Michael Capuano of Somerville, and Richard Neal of Springfield.

“I’m proud of mine,’’ said Capuano, the Somerville Democrat whose earmark requests — all 90 of them, totaling $271 million — are listed under the headline “Transparency.’’ Capuano last year sought to distance himself from a federal investigation of a former Washington lobbying firm, PMA Group, when the firm’s fund-raising practices came under scrutiny. Capuano subsequently donated the PMA-related contributions he received to charity.

The state’s House delegation does not agree on what to call the spending requests. Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston refers to his earmarks as district projects, while Representative John Tierney, of Salem, calls them community projects. Representative Jim McGovern has a link for “Appropriations.’’ Frank was the only member of the delegation calling them earmarks.

Similar to Tsongas, Olver displays his requests in his archive of press releases. To get there, a constituent had to click on “News Center,’’ then click “Press releases.’’ There, under March 2010, were his “Appropriations Requests.’’ Late last week, Olver added a more prominent link on his homepage that has a picture of the US Capitol and says “Appropriations Earmark Requests.’’ A spokeswoman said the change had been in the works prior to the Globe inquiries.

“We noticed other members are doing a better job,’’ said Olver’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Murphy. “We’re proud of the requests, and we’re trying to make them more prominent.’’

Delahunt has posted his under an innocuous section called “About.’’ Sandwiched between a link to his biography and a link to “our district’’ is a section titled “Disclosures.’’ Clicking on that leads to his earmark requests, the only disclosure that is listed. Delahunt’s chief of staff, Mark Forest, said the earmarks were posted prominently on the homepage until the website was redesigned a few weeks ago. He said hundreds of constituents clicked on the earmark requests when they were first posted in February.

Markey posts his requests under a tab for “7th District.’’ The requests can easily go unnoticed, with the 19 communities he represents listed first. At the very bottom of those listings is a link to “Appropriations FY 2011’’ that includes his 87 earmark requests. Markey declined to comment, although an aide disagreed that the requests were hard to find, noting it would take two mouse clicks to locate them.

Tsongas, responding to questions, noted her history of disclosure. “I strongly support the disclosure of appropriations requests that members of Congress make, which is why I voluntarily made all of my appropriations requests publicly available when I was first elected to Congress and before it was a requirement to do so,’’ Tsongas said in a prepared statement.

“It used to be that a request didn’t cost you anything — you could submit hundreds of millions of dollars in requests,’’ said Ellis. “Now, constituents know if you’re asking for the sun and the moon and the stars — or asking for projects for contributors. Whatever it is, constituents have a right to know.’’

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