WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress insisted it cleaned up its act five years ago in a much-ballyhooed reform, banning the costly practice of embedding legislation with billions of dollars for pet projects back home.
Now, the custom of "earmarking" has become relatively rare. But creative lawmakers have found ways to help their states and districts, and the process is far more opaque than it used to be. But dig deep into the massive, 2,009-page spending bill and accompanying documents, and examples emerge.
MISSISSIPPI CLEAN COAL PLANT
"Clean coal" power plants had a heyday a few years ago as big projects like Illinois' FutureGen received plenty of taxpayer dollars to help develop new technologies to deal with pollution from dirty-burning coal. But FutureGen, which received $1 billion in the 2009 economic stimulus bill, and several others went belly-up.
One project left standing is being built in Kemper County in eastern Mississippi, represented by Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee. It's suffering from huge cost overruns, threatening consumers with higher electricity rates.
In response, Cochran stepped in to redirect at least $160 million in leftover funds from failed projects, including FutureGen, to the Kemper facility. The funds are tucked into the Energy Department's budget to redirect money to "previously selected demonstration projects."
The Obama administration requested $185 million in 2016 to build a single new courthouse, a long-overdue facility in Nashville.
Lawmakers had other ideas. They added $763 million to clear out a backlog of courthouse projects, including $95 million for a courthouse annex in Toledo, Ohio, and $156 million for a courthouse annex in Charlotte, North Carolina, that hasn't even been designed yet. New courthouses in Greenville, South Carolina ($92 million); Anniston, Alabama ($92 million); San Antonio, Texas ($135 million); and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania ($161 million), also appear to get funded, as well as a $96 million annex in Savannah, Georgia.
Then there's money for a courthouse in Des Moines, Iowa. No estimate yet, and there's not even a site acquired.
You won't find any of this detail in the 2,009-page bill. Instead, an accompanying explanation sets out ground rules for divvying up the extra money, which involves referencing a separate document produced by the Judicial Conference of the United States, which — under reforms put in place in the 1990s — makes recommendations to Congress.
Old-school appropriators like Cochran and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., earmarked the old-fashioned way, directly naming new facilities in Greenville, Mississippi, and Rutland, Vermont, by naming them in the accompanying report.
President Barack Obama requested $141 million for the building and repair of federal prisons. Congress provided $530 million — a $389 million increase — and told the Bureau of Prisons that "not less than $444,000,000 is for costs related to the construction of new facilities."
Fair enough. So which facilities? Which congressional districts or states get them? Alas, there's no way of knowing with the material available to the public.
But wait: A document accompanying the bill directs the Bureau of Prisons to "proceed with ongoing planned and associated new construction efforts to meet projected capacity requirements, as identified in its monthly status of construction reports to the Committees on Appropriations."
That directive hints at earmarking the old-fashioned way — in absolute secrecy and working in concert with an agency whose budget is controlled most directly by powerful lawmakers on the Appropriations committees.
So, can one get a copy of the secret report? Only if you ask. Topping the most recent report, for October, is a 1,200-inmate prison in the eastern Kentucky district of Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, who was a force in getting the project underway a decade ago. It may ultimately cost more than $500 million when construction is complete, and bring 300 full-time jobs to the economically-distressed region. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is another powerful backer.
APPALACHIAN COAL MINE RECLAMATION
This one's a little more straightforward. The Interior Department was given an extra $90 million for "grants to states for the reclamation of abandoned mine lands in conjunction with economic and community development and reuse goals."
In other words, give states with abandoned mine sites help with projects to be built on them.
OK, so which states? Why not just say?
Remember, no earmarking. Instead, the measure directs Interior to look to an earlier House report — remember that Rogers, a Republican, represents coal country in eastern Kentucky, the heart of Appalachia — which directs the money "be provided to the three Appalachian States with the largest unfunded needs."
It's a safe bet that Kentucky qualifies.
FIFE AND DRUM
This is maybe best called a reverse earmark.
Requests for construction projects at military bases are routinely rubber-stamped. But lawmakers have denied a $37 million request for an "Instruction Building" at Fort Myer, located in the Virginia suburbs of Washington.
"There is concern that the initial design of this facility failed to incorporate the Fife and Drum Corps needs," the measure says.