Single Company Earmarks under the Radar

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Like zombies that will not die, congressional earmarks—spending requests targeted toward a specific recipient by a member of Congress—live on, albeit in altered form. Criticized for decades because they were sometimes used to steer money to political cronies or donors for projects of dubious public value, earmarks were killed via online disclosure rules in 2009—but have now risen from the grave as “darkmarks”. 


Unlike earmarks, darkmarks (technically, programmatic requests) are directed at specific projects or programs, not specific recipients, and thus the earmark disclosure rules do not apply. If enough Congress members support a particular programmatic request, it is likely to get funded. Bob Rapoza, executive secretary of the National Rural Housing Coalition, which is lobbying members to support programmatic requests for low income housing, assured the Sunlight Foundation that, “All the programs we support have never been in an earmarked account. All the money is distributed on a competitive basis.”


And therein lies the rub, for while darkmarked funds may go to specific programs rather than specific recipients, programs can be, and are, designed such that only one contractor can get the contract for them. This is especially true for defense contracts, in which high-tech and classified requirements often mean that only one firm is actually able to perform the contract work.


In fact, a Sunlight Foundation analysis of 680 Pentagon procurement programs found that 145 (21.3%) list just one contractor. Assuming this rate applies to the remaining 382 programs, there are about 226 programs in the defense budget alone for which a programmatic request has exactly the same effect as would an earmark: it targets federal funds to a specific recipient.


For example, if a member of Congress makes a programmatic request asking for more funding for line 3 of the Army aircraft procurement budget, taxpayer money will go to General Atomics. If the member wants to direct money to Raytheon, he or she can make a request regarding line 7 of the Army missile procurement budget; if Lockheed Martin is the object of legislative affection, line 19 of the Navy's weapons procurement will do.

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Darkmarks: Has Congress found a way to fund pet projects? (by Bill Allison, Sunlight Foundation)

Darkmarks: Defense programs can have one beneficiary (by Bill Allison, Sunlight Foundation)

38 House Members Filtered Government Money to Relatives and Their Employers (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

33 Members of Congress Directed Federal Projects within 2 Miles of Own Property (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Congress Rebrands Earmarks as “Programmatic Requests” (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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