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Despite promises, few in House publicize earmarks

Story Highlights

• Only 51 of 435 House members provided information on earmark requests
• 68 declined to provide requests; 316 didn't return calls or provide requests
• Democrats promised scrutiny of earmarks when they regained Congress
• Earmarks -- derided as "pork" -- often fund lawmakers' pet projects
From Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston
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(CNN) -- Despite the new Democratic congressional leadership's promise of "openness and transparency" in the budget process, a CNN survey of the House found it nearly impossible to get information on lawmakers' pet projects.

Initially, staffers for only 34 of the 435 members of the House contacted by CNN between June 13 and 15 were willing to supply a list of their earmark requests for fiscal year 2008, which begins on October 1. Some of those 34 staffers simply pointed callers to Web sites where those earmark requests were posted.

Since CNN aired the results of the survey, bloggers demanded that members of Congress release their requests. The Chicago Tribune ran an editorial asking why members of the Illinois delegation were being so secretive.

On Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, a member of the Illinois delegation, posted his more than 100 earmark requests on his Web site, the first presidential candidate to do so.

And 11 more House members released their earmark requests.

Six members of the House said they had no earmark requests.

Of the remainder, 68 declined to provide CNN with a list, and 316 either didn't respond to requests or said they would get back to us, and didn't. (Find out how your representative responded)

"As long as we are not required to release them, we're not going to," said Dan Turner, an aide to Rep. Jim McCrery, R-Louisiana.

In 2006, Congress approved a record $29 billion in earmarks. Those spending requests -- often derided as "pork" -- fund everything from road construction and research grants to ski lifts and minor league baseball diamonds. Legislators view these projects as important proof they are serving their constituents back home.

The 2006 total was 6.2 percent -- more than 2005's $27.3 billion.

When Democrats regained control of Congress last fall, they promised to create the most honest, open Congress in history.

"We will bring transparency and openness to the budget process and to the use of earmarks," Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi said in December 2006, "and we will give the American people the leadership they deserve."

Democrats said Republicans had corrupted the earmark process while they controlled Congress.

Earlier this year, the House implemented rules changes that require greater disclosure of earmark requests, and the Senate passed a bill that would require lawmakers to post a list of their earmark requests on the Internet. The bill, however, has not passed the House.

Last week, the issue came to a head as the House got bogged down deliberating the budget for the Department of Homeland Security Department.

Republicans accused the Democratic leadership of attempting to bypass debate on questionable earmarks when House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wisconsin, said he would not attach them to legislation until those bills had passed the Senate and House and had been sent to conference committees to work out differences.

Obey said there wasn't time to scrutinize the 32,000 earmark requests and keep the legislation moving. He blamed having to "clean up after" the Republican-controlled Congress for why the requests wouldn't be examined in time. (Watch Obey tell the GOP that Dems had to clean up "your mess" before addressing earmarks Video)

But House Republicans pointed out that position was counter to Democratic campaign promises and Obey was forced to back down and allow Republicans weeks to examine the earmark requests.

Critics said that doesn't play well with reform-minded taxpayers.

"Their behavior isn't better than the last Congress and in some ways worse because they know they have those requests," said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "We know they have more than 30,000 letters asking for specific earmarks and they're not letting us see them."

Tom Schatz, of Citizens Against Government Waste, said the compromise is a step in the right direction but short of promised reforms -- all requests won't be made public, only the ones for which spending requests are approved.

Originally there was going to be no disclosure, now we have some disclosure," Schatz said. "And yet again the judgment will be made by the Appropriations Committee staff."

But others like Public Citizen say the compromise is far from what was promised.

"It violates the whole spirit of the reform, said Craig Holman, legislative representative for the nonpartisan group's Congress Watch.

"We really did expect that earmark requests would be an open book so that all of America could sit there and take a look at who's requesting what earmarks," Holman said.

CNN staffers Amanda Sealy and Todd Schwarzschild and interns Rachel Zelkowitz, William Hudson, Rachel Reynolds, Chamise Jones, Haley Van Dyck and Brittany Edney contributed to this report.




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