'Phonemarks' replace earmarks on Capitol Hill

Commentator and Washington Post columnist Jeff Birnbaum

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: Congress continues with its Memorial Day break, but there's always the phone if lawmakers really need to take care of business. In fact, commentator Jeff Birnbaum says more business than ever is being done by phone.


JEFF BIRNBAUM: Everyone knows what earmarks are. They're those special pork-barrel projects slipped into legislation that got Republicans in so much trouble the last few years. You remember — the Bridge to Nowhere and the like.

Well now, Democrats are in charge in Congress, and earmarks are harder for lawmakers to get. But not impossible.

Special-interest funding is still available for the clever. Instead of putting pork into legislation, lawmakers are getting around the whole process by phoning their projects in. Literally.

Eager to avoid the bad publicity of legislative earmarking, lawmakers are secretly calling or writing bureaucrats and demanding that they fund their pet projects by fiat.

These projects-via-telephone, or phonemarks, are the hottest new gimmick on the Washington scene.

Executive branch officials can dole out millions of dollars with impunity. And they avoid the scrutiny of the public, since they are done quietly and without any disclosure.

Earmarks actually have to be written down in a public law. Phonemarks, on the other hand, are accomplished through bureaucratic sleight-of-hand and nobody but the lawmaker and the bureaucrat need to know for sure.

So attractive is this backdoor pork-barreling that even Harry Reid, the Senate's majority leader, has given it a try.

When the House passed a bill funding the Energy Department earlier this year, it boasted that the legislation contained no money earmarked for special projects. But within days, lawmakers, including Reid, began directly contacting the Energy Department, seeking to secure money for their favorite causes.

Reid demanded extra money for geothermal energy, a program that his electricity-needy state of Nevada could certainly use. Other lawmakers, from both parties, flooded the Energy Department with similar requests.

And the beautiful part? The money could flow without Congress casting a single vote. Phonemarks are the new route to riches at taxpayer expense.

RYSSDAL: Jeff Birnbaum is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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