Utah's three U.S. House members have completely different philosophies about requesting "earmarks" that order federal agencies to fund specific projects they like.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, requested none for upcoming 2010 appropriations bills, and he campaigned against earmarks. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, requested relatively few (totaling $56 million), and only 3.5 percent were for campaign donors. But Rep. Rob Bishop requested $6.5 billion worth, and 95 percent are for past campaign donors.
He requests so much, in part, because he passes along virtually all requests made to him. "My concept is basically that if an earmark is asked of us, and it appears to be for a legitimate project, we pass it on — because appropriators have to look at it and make that call (on whether it is funded) anyway," Bishop said.
Also, he is on the House Armed Services Committee, so much of what he requests is for defense contractors. Those requests tend to be for very expensive weapons systems — and such contractors also happen to be donors to his campaigns because of his committee role.
Finding such data is easier this year because the House this month began requiring members to post on their Web sites the earmarks they request (senators need not do so yet). That comes after President Barack Obama campaigned against earmarks for inflating spending for sometimes silly projects, although he also requested them as a senator.
Chaffetz also made earmarks a campaign issue that he used to help defeat former Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. In last year's campaign, Chaffetz said, "Until there's reform, I will not ask for them. They're a cancer in the system, and I want to extract them."
Matheson requested $56.2 million worth of earmarks for 2010, or less than 1 percent of what Bishop did. Most were on behalf of local governments for such things as specific roads, trails or water systems. Only one was on behalf of a campaign donor, L-3 Communications, for $2 million for a driving simulator for soldiers.
Examples of some other earmarks Matheson requested include: $1.6 million to complete construction of the Timpanogos Cave National Monument visitors center; $3.8 million for a navigation system at the St. George Airport; $998,000 for energy-efficient outdoor lights at the Utah Shakespearean Festival; and $1.1 million to help revitalize the Jordan River corridor in Salt Lake County.
"I request funding for projects that have merit for improving public safety, growing the economy and enhancing the quality of life in Utah," Matheson said.
"I am comfortable putting my name alongside all these requests. Whether it is to help expand Uintah County's drug court or to bring city water mains up to current fire codes, I look to local officials for the most critical needs in their communities," he added.
The king of earmarks among Utah's House members is Bishop, whose $6.5 billion in requests was 115 times more than what Matheson made, and 95 percent of it went to campaign donors.
Just two of his requests — both for Boeing — accounted for almost all of the value of his requests: $4.2 billion to buy another 15 C-17 cargo planes, and $1.75 billion for the Global Ballistic Missile Defense system.
"Part of that was we were reacting to rumors that Obama's budget will cut the C-17, which many of us think is a bad idea. That was a multi-member request. I was not the only one requesting it," Bishop said.
He adds that sometimes administrations intentionally cut their defense budgets — to make them appear leaner — knowing that Congress will add back key programs through earmarks. "It's a game that administrations of both parties have played," he said.
He adds that defense contractors come to him with requests for earmarks because he is on the Armed Forces committee, "and because almost all of the military installations in Utah are in my district."
Beyond those two large Boeing earmark requests, Bishop requested another $544.3 million in earmarks, with $209.4 million (or 38 percent of that) on behalf of campaign donors (again, mostly defense contractors).
Some interesting requests he made include:
$11.2 million requested by Kennecott for research into possible military uses of copper.
$4.7 million requested by Kennecott for Navy research that includes possible use of copper-based paint to improve environmental law compliance.
$2 million to help design the City Creek trailway system from 600 West in Salt Lake City to the Utah State Fair Park (City Creek now runs in underground pipes there).
$500,000 to help Salt Lake City restore the Fisher Mansion.
$740,000 to help McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden replace an 11-year-old MRI machine.
$1 million to help the I Won't Cheat Foundation conduct assemblies in high schools nationwide about the dangers of using anabolic steroids.
$500,000 for Enough is Enough for education programs to help protect youths from the dangers of Internet pornography.
$32 million for a new Life Sciences test facility at Dugway Proving Ground, to move biological testing out of temporary trailers and into a modern "bio-safety level 3" facility.
Bishop says he sees both good and bad in earmarks.
"They are good in the respect that it is Congress's role to direct how money is spent. If Congress doesn't do that, then some bureaucrat in the administration will," he said. But he also acknowledges that sometimes wasteful hometown earmarks pushed by some members are approved.
"The real issue is that we spend too much money overall," he said. "Really, a very small percentage of what we spend is in earmarks."
With 95 percent of his total earmark requests going to help defense contractors who previously donated to his campaigns, are campaign donors more likely to receive help with earmarks?
"No, but I don't expect anyone to believe that," Bishop said. "But to be honest, we don't look at who has given to our campaign" before deciding to forward along their request to appropriations committees.
While it may lead to some uncomfortable questions, Bishop said he actually applauds new rules requiring disclosure of earmark requests. "It may be uncomfortable as we get used to it, but it is probably positive in the long run. I would like to reform the process we use," he said.
E-MAIL: [email protected]