WASHINGTON — When Congress banned “earmarks” in 2011, House Speaker John Boehner hailed the move as proof that lawmakers were “dead serious” about outlawing pet projects and “ending business as usual in Washington.”
But new documents show that the ban — while still in effect — has done little to curb the appetite of Florida legislators looking to steer millions of dollars to hometown projects, from dredging at Port Canaveral to security at Miami International Airport.
Instead of earmarks, members of Congress are using another funding tool that watchdog groups have dubbed the “dark mark” because they’re not public in the same way earmarks once were.
But the effect is similar.
In Central Florida, U.S. House members have asked appropriators to support programs that would expand Port Canaveral and repay Orlando International Airport for security improvements.
While there’s no assurance any member will get what’s been requested, there’s also no penalty for asking — and most of Florida’s congressional delegation did so, according to records released to the Orlando Sentinel.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, wants the Appropriations Committee to include language in its defense bill that touts simulation as a “cost effective” way to train troops while encouraging the National Guard to employ such programs — a potential boon for Central Florida’s modeling and simulation industry.
Though the request does not mention a dollar figure or company — doing so would violate the earmark ban — this type of “support” language can have an impact. The Pentagon spends about $3 billion annually on simulation training, and even a small shift in funding could mean a windfall.
Mica said these appeals to appropriators — officially known as “language” or “programmatic” requests — are one of the few avenues left to lawmakers to affect federal spending.
“What else would you use?” he asked. “I think it’s important for members of Congress to highlight their priorities.”
Most of Florida’s 27 U.S. House members released their requests, although seven Republicans did not, including U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami. Three Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, only provided descriptions.
The difference between earmarks and dark marks is detail. Earmarks were line-item requests inserted by lawmakers directly into spending bills for a specific purpose — say, $500,000 to study the widening of State Road 46 in Central Florida or $223 million for the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.
Abuses, highlighted by the Jack Abramoff scandal and an annual total that soared to $15.9 billion in 2010, ultimately led Congress to ban them starting in 2011.
Dark marks are broader. Rather than seeking money for a specific project, lawmakers will ask to increase funding for a larger program in the hopes that some money will trickle down to a local entity.
One example is the effort by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, to help Orlando International Airport.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Transportation Security Administration told U.S. airports it would reimburse them for buying equipment that could detect explosives in baggage.
As of December 2011, however, more than $3.2 billion was still owed to the airports, and Webster wants appropriators to force TSA to prioritize repayment of these debts. Airport officials say OIA is owed $60.7 million.
“We ought to have a policy of keeping our word,” Webster said. “It doesn’t just affect us. There are plenty of other airports that did the same thing.”
Webster and lawmakers such as U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, also want to break open a piggy bank called the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The account, which is funded largely through fees on cargo, has an estimated $8 billion surplus, and they want appropriators to tap into it to help Florida’s ports.
Posey, in particular, wants rules for that fund adjusted so the money can be used for purposes other than just maintenance. Port Canaveral currently is seeking $34 million in federal dollars to expand and deepen its facilities.
“It could greatly expand the economic engine there if you can just accept bigger ships,” he said.
Still, watchdog groups worry these types of requests could lead to abuse.
An analysis by the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation found that roughly 20 percent of Pentagon procurement programs benefit only one company. That leaves them vulnerable for lawmakers to use dark marks to increase funding as a de facto earmark.
“It does seem like some these [dark marks] can be used the same way earmarks were,” said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation. “They found a way to get around disclosure and potentially get around steering money to specific recipients.”
Of the Florida lawmakers who released their requests, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D- Miramar, was the most prolific — requesting 191 changes on issues ranging from animal safety to housing assistance. Not too far behind was U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, who had more than 140 requests.
Not every request is directed toward getting money. Several lawmakers are trying to use them as vehicles for pet legislation.
Posey asked appropriators to include language that bars the IRS from spending money on a new regulation that requires banks to disclose the identities of foreigners with U.S. deposits.
The new rule went into effect last January, despite objections from Posey and banks. They fear the new transparency will scare away foreign depositors.