There are earmarks, and then there are earmarks.
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Rep. Don Young (R-AK) has taken the political art form to an ethically questionable level that even some experts in the trenches have never seen. In 2005, Young waited until after the House and Senate passed a transportation bill, but before the president signed it into law, to rewrite a passage that would have granted $10 million for an interstate in Florida. His new wording targeted the money to a much smaller, more specific project to connect Coconut Road to that interstate. It's an unpopular project in the area, but a boon for real estate developer Daniel Aronoff, who held a $40,000 fundraiser for Young in Florida just before the earmark appeared.
Young has refused multiple requests for comment from different publications on these, and related allegations. Once he made an obscene gesture at a New York Times reporter who approached him about the earmark. His spokeswoman did not get back to us today.
I asked a few experts today for historical and ethical perspective on Young's move.
Former staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, Scott Lilly, said this is a very atypical procedure. Once the bill has been voted on by the House and Senate, only some very technical changes can be made by the clerk. Then it goes to the President.
"The committee chair really doesn't have any control over the bill at that point," Lilly said. "There are some really arcane things that you can do, but you would have to pass a resolution directing the enrolling clerk to make the change, but that would have to pass both Houses. There is very little the enrollment clerk can do. I don't know that they can change spelling mistakes."
The changes made by Young are far more substantive than spelling errors.
"To say it's unusual isn't enough," said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It is an anomaly that we have never seen before."
Normally, members of Congress who want to clarify how an earmark is to be spent, outline the details in an accompanying report. These reports are only advisory, but are often followed to avoid falling out of favor for the next time an appropriation rolls around. Ashdown pointed out that the 2005 legislation was Young's last chance to oversee a transportation bill, which only come up every six years, as a committee chair. Advice from a sitting duck committee chair wouldn't carry the same heft as language in the law.
"[Young] knew that because this was a controversial project in the area, the only way to make sure his benefactor got the money was if he wrote it in the statute," Ashdown said.