PBS' Bill Moyers Journal profiles Seattle Times investigative reporters David Heath and Hal Bernton in their investigation of congressional earmarks, and their recipients, in the Pacific Northwest.
So far this year, members of Congress have appropriated 12,881 earmarks for "pet projects," some to be conducted by campaign contributors, which would cost taxpayers over $18 billion.
David Heath, for the Seattle Times' 'Favor Factory' feature, had to build his own database, now available online, in order to research the recipients of earmarks in the 2007 defense budget.
The appropriations bill itself did not list the earmarks, requiring Heath to enlist the help of veteran Washington staffer Winslow Wheeler.
"If you look at a Department of Defense appropriations bill," says Wheeler, "you'll not find very much pork in it. What you need to do is look at the committee report; 99% of the pork is in the committee report, not in the statute."
The committee report for the 2007 appropriations bill contained the data Heath was looking for, but in a barely decipherable code, and in small print. Heath identified 2,700 earmarks, worth around $12 billion, by hunting down the representatives' press releases and matching them with the data on the report.
Heath and military affairs specialist Hal Bernton found a disturbing trend in awards that representatives in the Pacific Northwest were handing out: Money was going towards manufacturing products that would never be used, or that nobody asked for to begin with.
One such product was Microvision Corporation's "Nomad," a helmet with a mounted computer display, meant to flash maps and relevant data to a soldier in combat. In 2001, Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA), who would later join Microvision's board, earmarked $8 million for the development of the "Nomad."
Democratic Senator Patty Murray, his successor, would appropriate a total of $11.5 million more to buy the helmets.
"Junk," one Army commander called the helmets, which have never seen combat; a contractor called Rockwell Collins was awarded the contract instead, but Senator Murray awarded Microvision $6 million for the purchase of their product anyway.
"People tend to talk about earmarks as something that is a bad thing," Sen. Murray told Heath. "I see it as a way to make sure that the tax dollars that are spent are spent in a very wise way and help our state economically."
When confronted with the events surrounding Microvision, the Senator added, "None of us bat a thousand, and obviously this one didn't, or potentially hasn't, and--you know--we'll just keep trying to get as close to a thousand as we can. That's what my job is."
"This is not about an aberration," says Heath. "This is about a culture. This is about a system that's doing this -- it's not just a bad congressman."
The entire feature, "Mr. Heath Goes to Washington," is available to view below. It was broadcast on PBS' Bill Moyers Journal on February 22, 2008.
More information on the work of David Heath and Hal Bernton is available at the Seattle Times.