On July 29, 2005, after both houses of Congress had passed a massive transportation bill, someone changed the language of a $10 million authorization for Florida to read just how Rep. Don Young (R-AK) wanted it. Who? How? It's not clear, and Don Young's not talking. But we do know one thing for sure: it was a unique case.
The 800-page, $286.4 billion bill included $24.2 billion for 6,371 special earmarks, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Out of those 6,371 earmarks, only one
underwent a substantive change after it passed Congress. How do we know? We checked. Our, rather, our tireless (and by now nearly blind) researchers Will Thomas and Tanvir Vahora checked. Every single one. Lawmakers tucked 6,371 projects into the bill, and sure, there were minor differences between the conference report that passed Congress and the bill that the President signed, such as an extra word here or there, different punctuation, etc. But the only earmark that underwent a substantive change was Young's pet Coconut Road project:
As Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense explained
to us, Young had a motive for making the change. Local authorities had signaled that they didn't want to spend the money on the I-75 Coconut Road Interchange and would rather have it for a more general highway widening project. But Young's rainmaker
, businessman Daniel Aronoff, wanted the interchange. And so Young made sure that the money was targeted to that project.
The question remains, of course, how this happened.
As we've detailed before, the change must have been made during what's called the "enrollment" process, when technical changes are made by the House clerk to tidy up the bill that Congress passed. The change was only recently discovered, after Lee County officials commissioned a study on the earmark.
Stan Brand, former General Counsel to the House of Representatives, said that such clerks would have had to be involved in the change. And he joined other experts and watchdogs in calling for the incident to be investigated. "It seems to me a matter that the House would want to look at to see if its processes are being manipulated."
Brand couldn't think of another instance where a lawmaker had made such a change to a passed bill. His best comparison was to a 1983 House probe into the corruption of transcripts from investigations into the Environmental Protection Agency. There, members on both sides of the aisle were found to have substantively changed the nature of witnesses' testimony.
"Legislation has to be above reproach for any certainty in the interpretation and the enforcement of our laws," he said. "It's a fairly serious issue, and somebody needs to find out what happened. It goes far beyond some interchange down in Florida."
Will Thomas and Tanvir Vahora contributed research to this post.