Earmarks By Another Name

During the 2008 presidential campaign and even in the months following President Barack Obama’s election, Democrats in Congress and the administration have said with straight faces that the “stimulus” package would contain no earmarks. They focused on a pet project of some Illinois politicians, including then-Senator Barack Obama–the FutureGen clean-coal power plant. This is what was said then:

“We don’t want any room for Republicans or Democrats to put earmarks in — even to worthy projects,” said a West Wing aide.

FutureGen is a public-private partnership seeking to build a clean-coal power plant in Mattoon, Ill. It wants federal funds to complete the billion-dollar-plus project and, along with the delegation, expressed hope that money might be tucked into the economic package expected to become law next month.

Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said that it was Obama’s decision to exclude the funding and that Pelosi had ensured it was not in the House version.

“It shows that we’re serious about it,” Daly noted. “The speaker said it, and the president said it: There will not be earmarks in this bill.” [emphasis added]

Fast-forward to June 2009, where the Politico offers this:

Earmarks? Perhaps not. But funding for FutureGen? Absolutely, to the tune of $1 billion.

The Department of Energy on Friday announced that the FutureGen project is on track after all, committing federal stimulus money to advance the project to its next stage. One reason: It was the only shovel-ready project that fits the requirements of the stimulus bill.

Administration officials and the project’s other big backer, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), insist that’s not an earmark at all, as promised — because the stimulus bill doesn’t specifically name the FutureGen project as a recipient of the money.

But others say that’s a distinction without a difference — that FutureGen is merely an earmark by another name, a project that had powerful patrons, funding straight out of the stimulus bill and requirements for the money targeted so narrowly that only a few projects would fit the bill.

Essentially, FutureGen’s funding was secured through a “rifle-shot” provision where the language is vague–meaning the beneficiaries are not specifically named–but the description could only apply to one or a handful of entities. It would be like saying, “All manufacturing companies based in Auburn Hills, Michigan, that employ more than 55,000 workers worldwide are entitled to a $20 million tax benefit.”