Congress has included $193 million worth of earmarks in budget proposals for the Department of Homeland Security’s 2011 fiscal year, despite earlier promises when it was formed to keep out such pork-barrel spending and a measure approved by the Senate this summer that would explicitly ban some of them. Led by Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), chairman of the House homeland security appropriations subcommitee, lawmakers in recent years have requested direct spending for cybercrime, bridges, “bio-preparedness,” emergency operations centers, a Coast Guard station in Ohio and programs to thwart economic espionage. Requests for 2011 spending flowed in shortly after the Senate took steps to prohibit one type of direct appropriation for “pre-disaster mitigation,” a program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that is popular among lawmakers because it enables them to “earmark” funds for the states or districts they represent and score political points among some voters. An amendment sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Ok.) cleared the Senate in late June and would block $19 million in pending earmarks if it fully applied today. The measure, which still needs a House endorsement, appeared to send the message that Congress was finally following through on pledges to reign in the use of earmarks. But the sheer volume of earmark requests by individual lawmakers for the 2011 fiscal year underscores questions about whether Congress intends to fulfill past vows to curb such spending. Draft appropriations legislation for homeland security contains tens of millions of dollars in other earmarks not addressed by Coburn’s proposal. Just seven of the total 100 homeland security earmarks disclosed by Congress carry the names of Republicans. The rest are being sponsored entirely by Democrats. GOP leaders in the House sought to impose an election-year moratorium on the direct spending items, but some Republicans chose not to participate. Two senators known for their willingness to send money back home, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah), lost primary races in part because opponents linked them successfully to the perception of waste in Washington. “Members of Congress routinely talk about the need to reform earmarking, yet they rarely put their words into action,” said John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn. “So the fact that these earmarks are continuing proves the need for the amendment.” “The earmark favor factory as it exists today was built over two decades,” Hart added, “and it’s going to take a long time to dismantle.”

From left: Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

Worried about a backlash against earmarks, which have soared over the last decade, lawmakers continually talk about limiting their use. Democrats said they would tackle massive spending on pet projects after regaining control of Congress in 2006 as questions swirled around whether former Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and others were using them in pay-for-play schemes to reward campaign contributors and their lobbyists. Critics say that even more benign earmarks cheat the process for publicly debating how taxpayer money should be used and circumvent procedures for ensuring that federal funds are well spent. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a champion of earmark reform, reminded his colleagues last year about post-9/11 promises to restrict them from the Department of Homeland Security’s annual budget, which has ballooned to more than $55 billion. Lawmakers promptly abandoned that idea. Members of Congress attached 175 earmarks worth $264.2 million to homeland security spending legislation just for the 2010 fiscal year. During a Senate debate in October of 2009, McCain read from a list of earmarks he considered questionable, attacking $250,000 to retrofit a senior center in Utah, $4 million designated for a bridge in Iowa, $200,000 for work at a college radio station in Ohio and $900,000 for an emergency operations center in a small Montana town with fewer than 6,000 residents. “No hearing was held to judge whether or not these were national priorities worthy of scarce taxpayer dollars,” McCain fumed. He and Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin at the time zeroed in on a subset of such spending. They proposed an amendment that would have required FEMA to award funds for so-called “pre-disaster mitigation” and emergency operations centers through means other than earmarks. It was swatted down with Democrats leading the opposition. Studies say the logic behind pre-disaster mitigation works, because making key infrastructure investments prior to calamity can reduce the often massive costs associated with recovery later. Yet a February report from the Congressional Research Service says at least some of the projects earmarked in past years didn’t appear to be eligible for funding under the program’s guidelines. The same report said that after combining earmarks with minimum amounts promised to states regardless of any dangers they face, as little as one-third remained for which applicants were required to compete by showing why they needed the money. Earmarks under the category of mitigation requested by members of Congress between the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years reached $43.5 million, an analysis shows, still a fraction of the $457 million in homeland security set-asides sponsored over all during that period. Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the mitigation program was designed with specific criteria to ensure federal cash went to those who met its original intent and faced the greatest risk of catastrophe. “With earmarks, you add political muscle to the equation,” he said. “When you look at earmarks, they readily flow to members of the appropriations committees.” FEMA offers an endless array of grant programs to state and local governments, each targeting highly refined preparedness needs, and pre-disaster mitigation aid is prioritized specifically for things like fortifying buildings against hurricane-force winds, moving properties out of flood-prone areas and managing vegetation to control wildfires. Warning systems or dam overhauls are eligible for money elsewhere, but they’ve nonetheless showed up as pre-disaster mitigation earmarks. “They’re putting square pegs into round holes,” Ellis said. Some members of Congress, like Bennett of Utah, argue their constituents have a clearer understanding of how taxpayer money should be used than government officials miles away in Washington. Bennett sponsored $5.5 million worth of homeland security earmarks between this year and last, including the $250,000 for a senior center derided by McCain as wasteful. “Senator Bennett believes Utahns should see the benefits of their tax dollars and is opposed to the idea that Washington bureaucrats, instead of elected officials who better know the needs of their states, should decide where to spend that money,” Andrea Candrian, a spokeswoman for Bennett, said in a prepared statement. But Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense counters that such logic allows one congressional district out of hundreds to judge whose needs are greater. If Congress doesn’t like the way a grant program is structured, it can change the rules and apply them to everyone. “To do an end-run with an earmark, it subverts the process and quite frankly is lazy,” Ellis said. Although Clinton administration officials created the mitigation program years ago, earmarks didn’t surface in it until 2008. That’s when Ellis says the number of individual direct spending requests began to swell under Congressman Price, who took over the House homeland security appropriations subcommittee in 2007. The North Carolina Democrat pursued more homeland security earmarks last year than any other member of Congress at five totaling $10.6 million. By cash volume, however, Price is by no means the leader. That distinction belongs to the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who sponsored earmarks totaling $43.3 million, most of it for a Customs and Border Protection training center in his state. Following closely behind him were four Republicans who each backed over $20 million in direct spending requests. A spokesman, Andrew High, defended Price’s own earmarks arguing that groups in his state “made strong proposals for how they can contribute to the preparedness of North Carolina communities and the nation as a whole.” As for the dozens of other projects, High said many of them are less expensive than those sponsored during Republican control of Congress, and all are now disclosed publicly. Price believes that FEMA poorly managed the mitigation program under former President Bush, and local communities waited too long for project approval. “There appeared to be no clear rationale for selecting grant recipients during that time,” High said, “so Congress chose to exercise its prerogative to designate the funding for particular communities in need.” The political dynamic involving earmarks changed this year because GOP members in the House promised they would commit to a moratorium on them, which meant the overall amount has dropped significantly. It’s also left earmark disclosure lists filled largely with Democrats. Some Republicans defied party leaders nonetheless, including Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (La.) who’s seeking $800,000 for an emergency operations center in New Orleans. “The congressman feels strongly that recovery in New Orleans had been stalled before he came here,” Spokesman Taylor Henry said referring to Hurricane Katrina. “ … Now is not the time to interrupt projects that move the recovery forward. He’s in a unique position among members of Congress.” Earmarks set aside otherwise for emergency operations centers reached $47.4 million in 2010 fiscal spending and benefitted not just lightly populated Montana. Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, chair of the powerful House Homeland Security Committee, obtained $750,000 for a town in his home state of Mississippi called Port Gibson where about 2,000 people live. Similar amounts were requested by policymakers for scores of other EOCs across the United States. Local officials say the centers are needed for better coordinating disaster response and recovery. But Matt Mayer, a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security and now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said one way to test investments in disaster readiness is to see who’s willing to cover the expense without federal aid. “It’s a priority if someone else is paying for it,” Mayer said. “Otherwise, they think the risk (of not having the project) is pretty small. ‘Why should we pay for it?’”

Click the graphic to see which states benefit the most from the earmarks.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.