The long-standing but controversial congressional practice of "earmarking" appropriations for particular projects has put two South Jersey representatives in an unwanted spotlight.
In an ongoing series on congressional ethics, The Washington Post listed New Jersey Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd Dist.) among 33 members who in recent years have directed more than $300 million in federal funds into areas where they own commercial or residential property.
In a related story, the newspaper noted that Rep. Robert Andrews (D-1st Dist.) had obtained federal funding for Rutgers-Camden Law School, where his wife is an associate dean. That is old news in New Jersey, where it was a 2008 campaign issue.
Andrews said the money funds a scholarship program that requires students to provide legal services to poor residents of Camden. In 2007, he obtained an ethics opinion that cleared the practice.
The congressional process of funneling portions of appropriations to specific projects normally is legal. But these earmarks have come under closer scrutiny in the following revelations about the increasing wealth of many in Congress, and questions about the impact of their legislative actions on their personal incomes.
After approving a record $32 billion in earmarks in 2010, lawmakers agreed to a moratorium on earmarks, although some members complain that has merely led to camouflaging them. The Senate last week approved measures to require members to disclose information about their mortgages, prohibit congressional insider trading, strip pensions from those ousted for corruption and require political intelligence operatives to register. But the Senators defeated an effort to ban earmarks.
Still, the Senate reforms won support from good-government groups. But it faces a buzzsaw in the House of Representatives.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington today criticized House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) for "cynically" substituting what it called "a watered-down version" of the bill that would keep most of the current system in place.
In LoBiondo's case, the Post reported that he secured almost $4.7 million for beach replenishment and monitoring in Ventnor, where he owns a home, and Atlantic City. In response, LoBiondo's office released a statement saying he has worked to secure funds for communities along the Jersey Shore and the Delaware Bay "without consideration of the financial impact to himself."
Congress first approved funds for Absecon Island in 1996, and the first phase was completed in 2004, before LoBiondo married his current wife. The couple moved to the Ventnor home in 2005, according to the statement.
"When Congress authorized earmarks, the Congressman's focus was always the needs of the communities he represents," the statement read.
The Post cited lawmakers from Georgia and Maryland for earmarking beach replenishment funds for communities where they own vacation homes.
But they are pikers compared to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who earmarked $100 million in projects to revitalize downtown Tuscaloosa, according to the Post. Shelby's title business, with a nephew's legal practice as a tenant, survived in the redeveloped area, which includes a new federal courthouse, while other properties were taken.
The location of Shelby's business "was the worst block in town," another local businessman, whose nearby holdings were acquired for the redevelopment, complained to the Post. But the project has transformed a formerly blighted area. Shelby told the newspaper that any benefits to him were so "remote" from the public purpose as to be irrelevant.
Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.) made a similar argument after obtaining $665,000 to widen a road past his family's food processing plant and nearby commercial property he was developing, according to the Post. The newspaper reported he and his wife had certified they had no financial interest in the road work.
Hinojosa told the Post that he sold the development property before the earmark went through, and a spokeswoman for the family company said it had not discussed the roadwork with the company that bought the site.
The executive branch is often faulted for having revolving doors between key positions and industries that benefit from regulatory and funding decisions, exemplified by the Wall Street executives who have filled high-profile positions in the Bush and Obama administrations.
But ethical requirements have been far lower in the legislative branch. There is little transparency in congressional finances, although ethical requirements differ slightly in the two chambers. Senators are supposed to certify that neither they nor immediate family members stand to benefit from earmarked funds. In the House, the restrictions apply only to representatives and their spouses, not to parents, children or other connections.