After taking control of the House of Representatives last November, congressional Republicans came up with a surefire way to cut government spending and shrink the federal deficit — ban earmarks.
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, who represents Colorado Springs, wrote an editorial supporting the ban, and targeted what he called “an important first step toward fundamentally changing the way taxpayer dollars are spent in Washington.”
By the time he threw his support behind the ban, Lamborn had requested at least $156 million in earmarks, much of it for military bases in his Colorado district, but also tens of millions in contracts for companies that had donated to his campaign.
From the 2008 through 2010 fiscal years, Lamborn got the second-highest amount of earmark money of the 10 Colorado House members who served during those years, including three who were in the House for a part of that time — Reps. Marilyn Musgrave, Tom Tancredo and Sen. Mark Udall.
Lamborn obtained just under $55 million in earmark money, roughly a third of what he asked for.
Only U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Lakewood, topped Lamborn, getting $58 million in those years.
Corporations that received government contracts, part due to Lamborn’s requests, contributed $72,000 to his campaign fund.
Earmarks are budget requests filed by members of Congress to designate certain amounts of money for specific projects. In the past, it’s been a way for representatives and senators to funnel federal cash back to home states and districts, ostensibly to ensure that worthwhile projects get the money they need.
All of Lamborn’s earmark requests were for military projects. For example, some of Lamborn’s earmark requests were for construction projects at Schriever, Peterson and Buckley Air Force bases, and the Army’s Fort Carson.
There is no doubt that earmark money has been a boon to the city. The projects those earmarks have funded have created — and sustained — thousands of jobs, and have helped keep Colorado Springs’ economy afloat through the recession.
But to many, the earmarking process has become rife with abuse. A famous example was the “bridge to nowhere,” a project in Alaska to build a $400 million bridge connecting the mainland to an island with 50 residents.
For the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years, Lamborn requested $67 million in earmarks for the military to purchase goods from companies which had contributed cash to his campaign. He also requested the endorsement of the House Appropriations Committee for an unspecified amount of funding for projects by companies which donated to his campaign.
Mixing campaign contributions and earmark requests can be a minefield, said Lamborn’s predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, because it can easily create the appearance of corruption. It was something Hefley said he avoided at all costs during his 20 years representing the 3rd Congressional District.
Hefley, who chaired the House Ethics Committee and served on the House Armed Services Committee, said he could recall one time when he submitted a request to Congress that would specifically benefit a campaign donor, but not before making sure there would be no appearance of a quid pro quo arrangement, he said.
“I told him what I was going to do, but I said, ‘Listen, I’m going to give you back your donation, because I don’t want even the appearance that there’s a connection,’” said Hefley. “You have to bend over backwards to not appear that you’re being bought to do anything.”
Opensecrets.org tracks campaign donations and earmarks requested by members of Congress, and its editor, Dave Levinthal, said the problem of trading financial favors in Washington is quite real.
“Can you draw a direct line in every case as to a cause and effect? No. That would be difficult to do. But there often is a very tight-knit web of influence, that the companies that are very politically active are getting a lot of funding,” Levinthal said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Littleton, is the only member of the Colorado delegation who hasn’t requested a single dollar in earmarks. Coffman, who was elected in 2008, said he opposes the earmark system for that very reason.
“Decisions are made not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of the political leverage of an individual member of Congress,” Coffman said. He did not criticize Lamborn for seeking earmarks, though, adding he’s sure Lamborn’s “intentions were good.”
Lamborn insisted there’s no connection between any campaign donation he’s received and the earmarks he filed.
“I don’t keep track of contributions,” said Lamborn. “It would be inappropriate and even unethical (to file earmarks on behalf of donors).”
“I’m sure there were funding requests that I worked on that no one ever gave me a contribution, or people that I didn’t help and they did give me a contribution. So it runs the gamut,” he said.
He said he’s stopped filing earmark requests, not just because Republican leadership has taken a stand against them, but because Congress needs to respond to the country’s financial attitude, to prove Washington isn’t the pit of corruption it’s often perceived to be.
“As time went by, there became more and more of a public perception that all earmarks were tainted, even if there was a legitimate explanation for the earmark,” Lamborn said.
He also disputed the application of the word “earmark” with regard to the projects he wanted to fund. He said he prefers the term “funding request,” because earmarks, to him, are evasive moves that don’t always see the light of day.
“Earmarks, to me, are abusive, because they would involve being added to legislation without hearings, sometimes in the middle of the night,” he said, adding that all of his earmarks were thoroughly examined by the Appropriations Committee.
When House Republicans were pushing for an earmark ban last November, Lamborn set out his views in a column he wrote for The Gazette slamming the practice.
“Many Americans view earmarks as a symbol of the wasteful spending and corruption that have run rampant in Washington for far too long,” wrote Lamborn. “Given past excesses by Democrats and Republicans alike, Republicans had to demonstrate that we could be trusted to keep spending under control.”
Hefley, retired and living in Oklahoma, defends earmarks, saying, without them, Congress wouldn’t be able to do its job.
“It’s not innately evil in and of itself. Otherwise, what you’re doing is saying, ‘Whatever the administration sends down in its budget, we’ve got to approve or disapprove.’ And you don’t want to do that. Then Congress becomes a rubber stamp for the administration,” he said. “It would be a mistake to ban all earmarks. They’ve gotten a bad name, because I think people don’t understand the situation.”
Coffman said many, if not most Republicans in Congress agree with Hefley. He said that before Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced the proposed earmark ban, a good number of Republican representatives complained about the move.
“A number of members were just incensed at him,” said Coffman. “They said, ‘How could you do this to us? We think that earmarks are just a basic part of the process, and that’s how Congress is supposed to work.’”
Lamborn touched on that question in his column last November, and said protecting defense spending will be more difficult without earmarks. He concluded, however, that banning earmarks was more important. He reiterated that point this week, but said “the jury’s still out” on whether defense spending is suffering because of the ban.
CAMPAIGN DONATIONS AND EARMARKS
• Lamborn asked the Appropriations Committee for $67 million for military projects that went to campaign donors, but those companies ultimately received only $12.32 million in contracts. The rest of the $55 million in earmarks Lamborn obtained went to projects awarded to companies that did not contribute to his campaign, or to military-run projects, such as construction jobs at local bases.
For the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years, Lamborn requested earmark money for military purchases from 10 companies who have given to his campaign.
• The Goodrich Corp. has given Lamborn $11,000 since 2007. Lamborn requested a $12 million contract in 2008 for the Air Force to pay for ejection seats made by Goodrich, and asked for $7 million the following year for the same purchase. Congress awarded nearly $8 million for the ejection seats in those two years.
•Aeroflex has given Lamborn just over $3,000, and in 2009, he obtained an earmark for the military worth $1.6 million, to buy “radiation hardened non-volatile memory technology” from the company.
•The owner of Colorado Engineering, Inc., gave Lamborn $500 after he had requested a $3 million contract for the Air Force to buy a sophisticated radar system from them. The company received a $1.6 million contract for the 2010 fiscal year.
•Analytical Graphics has donated just over $3,000 to Lamborn’s campaign, and in 2009, Lamborn helped the military get $800,000 to buy “deployable space and electronic warfare tools” that the company produces.
•Sturman Industries received the same amount in 2008, after donating $1,250 to Lamborn’s campaign.
Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, which work together often on government contracts, have given Lamborn a total of $30,000 since 2007. Lamborn asked the •Appropriations Committee to approve language for the 2010 Defense appropriations bill that would support increased funding for one of the pair’s joint projects and continued funding for another.
Other earmarks Lamborn requested and obtained went directly to government agencies, including Colorado’s three Air Force bases, Fort Carson, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.
Just under $55 million in other earmark requests for Lamborn campaign contributors were not approved.
•A company called 21st Century Systems has given Lamborn $3,500, and for the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years, Lamborn requested just over $11 million for the military to purchase software from the company. The request wasn’t approved.
•Ball Aerospace has given Lamborn $4,500, and he submitted an earmark request for a $3 million contract in 2010 for the Air Force to buy an antenna array from them. The request also was not granted.
•The Harris Corporation has given Lamborn $14,000 since 2007, and in 2009, he asked Congress for a $2 million contract for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, to pay the corporation to develop a sophisticated data accessing program. Congress didn’t approve it.
Four of the companies Lamborn requested contracts for are based in Colorado, and six are not. In-state companies that Lamborn requested earmarks for and have contributed to his campaign include Colorado Engineering, Inc., of Colorado Springs; Ball Aerospace, of Broomfield; and Sturman Industries, of Woodland Park.
The other six companies Lamborn requested contracts for include the Goodrich Corp., of North Carolina; 21st Century Systems, of Nebraska; Aeroflex, of New York City; the Harris Corp., of Florida; Raytheon, of Massachusetts; and Northrop Grumman, of Los Angeles.
Several of those companies have facilities and offices in Colorado Springs.
Lamborn falls roughly in the middle of the 435 members of the House when it comes to the amount of earmark money requested each fiscal year. In the 2010 fiscal year, Lamborn was 252nd. In the 2009 fiscal year, he ranked 233rd. And in the 2008 fiscal year, he was 258th.
Sources: The FEC, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn’s Web site, Thomas.gov, Opensecrets.org
Contact the writer at 476-4825.
Company Donations Earmark requests Contract awarded
21st Century Systems $3,500 $11.2 million $0
Aeroflex $3,092 $14.75 million $1.6 million
Analytical Graphics, Inc. $3,250 $7.2 million $800,000
Ball Aerospace $4,500 $3 million $0
Colorado Engineering, Inc. $500 $3 million $1.6 million
Goodrich Corporation $11,000 $19 million $7.52 million
Harris Corporation $14,000 $2 million $0
Sturman Industries $1,250 $7 million $800,000
Northrop Grumman and Raytheon $30,000 Committee support n/a for funding