Congress Spends Billions in Earmarks

Evening News Nov. 25, 2009 - Sharyl Attkisson story on Congressional earmarks in defense budget.
President Obama has declared war on "earmarks," funding for special projects that end up costing taxpayers billions. But some in Congress still haven't gotten the message.

The new defense budget is once again chock full of them, reports CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

The United States is now $12 trillion in debt, but Congress doesn't seem too concerned. They just added billions of dollars to next year's Pentagon budget in the form of earmarks.

The 2010 Defense Department budget starts at a whopping $623 billion. Pet projects of individual members of Congress add 1,858 earmarks equaling $5 billion tax dollars on top of it.

Sen. Tom Coburn is against earmarking altogether, saying it's fraught with conflicts of interest. Party leaders and those on the appropriations committees get the lion's share of earmarks.

"The appropriators reign supreme because they're like pirates who divide up the bounty and share it among themselves," Coburn said.

There is a stack of House and Senate earmarks tacked onto next year's Defense Department budget without the normal public review. None of these add-ons was important enough to be included in the regular budget. A lot of the companies getting tax dollars have campaign ties to the member of Congress giving the money.

For example, Congressman Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii awarded Pacific Biodiesel a $3.5 million earmark to try to grow fuel for the Army in Hawaii. It turns out the founder of Pacific Biodiesel is a co-chair of the Congressman's gubernatorial campaign.

The pattern is repeated over and over.

Abercrombie also gets donations from defense contractor BAE. BAE gets a defense earmark for "mammal awareness."

Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey receives thousands from defense contractor Honeywell. He gives Honeywell a $2 million earmark to develop specialized ink. Honeywell's lobby firm, Winning Strategies, happens to be managed by the Congressman's former chief-of-staff.

Congressman Robert Aderholt gets donations from the founder of Victory Solutions and Miltec. Each company gets an earmark.

Frelinghuysen had no comment. Abercrombie and Aderholt told us they carefully vet and disclose their earmarks, and award them to projects that will be beneficial.

At least one congressman is bucking the trend. John Adler of New Jersey has taken the unusual step of returning more than $6,000 in donations from a list of lobbyists and others who benefited from his earmark requests.

Last week, Coburn proposed giving up all earmarks and using the money to expand veteran's benefits.

"I believe we ought to pay for what we do," Coburn said.

Not surprisingly, Coburn's idea fell to overwhelming defeat, proving that even in hard economic times, it's easy for Congress to spend your money.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.