Hillary Serves out the Pork

One Sunday about three months ago -- on the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in fact -- I got out of bed very late and lazily switched on CNN. On the TV screen, Sen. Hillary Clinton was smiling broadly and wearing a black jacket over some strange Oriental get-up. She was standing next to influential black pastor Calvin Butts, in front of the latter's famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Camera bulbs were flashing. An important announcement was about to be made.

Butts, it turns out, was endorsing Hillary over Barack Obama in the upcoming New York primary. I raised an eyebrow. It's not that I expected Butts -- perhaps the most prominent black minister in New York -- to automatically endorse Obama simply because he is black. But I certainly didn't expect to see Butts go on national television and make swipe after thinly veiled swipe at Obama, sounding like he was reading a script prepared for him by Hillary's campaign team.

"This is no time for waiting or hoping for solutions," quipped Butts, making an obvious reference to The Audacity of Hope author Obama and echoing the hope-ain't-shit theme that had been pounded on the campaign trail by the Clinton camp over and over again.

The predominantly black crowd barely had time to scratch its collective head and ask what the hell was going on before the endorsement party abruptly ended, leaving the stunned audience to break out in scattered boos and dueling chants of "Harlem for Obama!" and "Hillary! Hillary!" The strange scene left some in the audience wondering what exactly they'd just seen. "What's frustrating about ministers endorsing candidates," an Obama supporter named Rafael Mason wondered to a reporter, "is it makes you question if their decision is representative of the church or if there's a backroom discussion going on."

Months later, while researching pork-barrel spending by the presidential candidates, I came across three federal budgetary awards requested by Hillary Clinton in this fiscal year:

  • $446,500 Abyssinian Development Corporation, New York, to support and expand youth and young-adult after-school and summer programs (Discretionary Grants -- Juvenile Justice Programs) COM 08 D Rangel Schumer Clinton
  • $893,000 Abyssinian Development Corporation programs for at-risk youth, New York (Discretionary Grants -- Juvenile Justice Programs) COM 08 D Rangel Clinton Schumer
  • $146,000 Abyssinian Development Corporation, to support and expand youth- and family-displacement prevention programs (Social Services -- Department of Health and Human Services) LABHHS 08 D Clinton Schumer

If you haven't already guessed, Calvin Butts is the chairman of the Abyssinian Development Corporation. The above-mentioned $1.5 million in federal funds that Hillary requested on behalf of Butts' organization had been approved by Congress a month before she received the minister's timely endorsement. Maybe the minister was following his conscience in endorsing Hillary -- but then, it never hurts to have a little financial incentive when it comes to difficult decisions like these, does it?

All politicians buy and sell favors, and presidential candidates are worse than most. In this race, none of the three remaining candidates are exactly squeaky clean when it comes to the doling out of federal budgetary largess. Even John McCain, who boasts that he doesn't request "earmarks," as pork-barrel spending is known on the Hill, actually has at least one to his name. And Barack Obama has not been shy about steering taxpayer dollars to people who might be able to help his presidential bid.

But of the three candidates, no one can touch Hillary Clinton for her expertise in dispensing federal pork. She is fast becoming a sort of Heavyweight Earmark Champion of the Beltway -- one think-tank analyst has even dubbed her the "Queen of Pork" -- who excels as a favor trader not only in sheer quantity but in brazenness as well. A recent examination of this year's earmark requests shows her solidifying her champion status more and more with each passing year, even under the ostensibly bright lights of a presidential campaign.

Here's how earmarks work: Each year, Congress allocates trillions of dollars, with most of it doled out to federal agencies, which in turn spend their budgets according to their own established -- and usually competitive and merit-based -- criteria. But in a small percentage of cases, members of Congress can direct the agencies in question to award their monies to specific organizations or companies, which are almost always located in that member's home state. In an unsurprisingly high number of cases, the money is given to a company whose executives just happen to have donated heavily to the member of Congress in question. That's what an earmark is. Some are legit and go to worthy causes, but on the whole they are sleazy enough to have moved the Democrats to pass earmark-reform legislation after they took control of Congress in 2006. The reform forced members of Congress to attach their names to the earmarks in question, and Democrats pledged to cut the number and cost of earmarks in half. They blew it. This past year, in fact, members of Congress jammed more than $17 billion of earmarks into the budget -- a thirty percent increase from the previous year. In March, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi abandoned plans to impose a one-year moratorium on earmarks -- a reform that was also rejected by the Democrat-controlled Senate.

"The Democrats studiously refuse to do anything serious about pork -- for the simple reason that they are every bit as addicted to it as the Republicans and have no intention whatsoever of lessening a system of self-aggrandizement that they believe gives them political success, nay permanence," says Winslow Wheeler, a former Senate aide who worked on defense earmarks before being forced into retirement for complaining about it publicly. "They will find -- hopefully sooner than they think -- that the permanence they crave is undermined by their self-directed behavior." Hillary's $1.5 million gift to Calvin Butts came from three of her earmarks in the fiscal year 2008. She had a lot of them. In fact, between 2002 and 2006, Clinton secured more than $2.2 billion in earmarks, many of them attached to defense-spending bills, where she has unusual influence as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Hillary succeeded in securing twenty-six earmarks to the 2008 defense bill worth a total of $148 million -- a number that dwarfed that of any Democrat except committee chairman Carl Levin. Barack Obama, by contrast, had only one request attached to the defense bill.

Hillary's defense earmarks benefited some of the world's largest weapons producers, many of which have factories in New York. Among the most prominent include Northrop Grumman, which Hillary singled out for $6 million to develop a new radar system; Plug Power, for whom Hillary secured $3 million for a backup power system for Pentagon operations; and Telephonics, which Hillary gave $5 million for an intercom system for Black Hawk helicopters.

Her biggest coup of all was a multi-billion-dollar contract she helped to secure for Lockheed Martin to build the Marine One presidential helicopter -- a project derided by insiders as a typical example of Pentagon waste. "Oh, the presidential-helicopter thing is a classic boondoggle," says one congressional source. "They could have taken any old Black Hawk helicopter, put a nice interior in it and a decal on it, and it would've been OK. Instead, we got this thing that costs four times as much. It's nuts." Indeed, the Pentagon confirmed in March that the helicopter Hillary made sure would be built at Lockheed's plant in Owego, New York, would, in fact, cost $400 million per unit -- more than the modified Boeing 747 used as Air Force One. You heard right: $400 million for a single fucking helicopter.

With most of her earmarks, Clinton makes sure to get a return on her investment of taxpayer money. Lockheed donated $10,000 to Hillary's Senate campaign in 2006 and provided her with plenty of free rides on its planes. Plug Power officials have reportedly donated some $7,100 to her campaigns since 2003, and several Northrop executives gave the max to her presidential campaign. In that light it seems odd that Hillary was critical of a deal to award a refueling tanker project to Northrop -- except that she has also received maximum contributions from executives at the rival bidder, Boeing. Meanwhile, employees from Corning, for whom Hillary secured a $1 million earmark, donated $133,000 to her presidential campaign. The list goes on and on.

But Hillary's most brazen earmark this presidential-election season had nothing to do with defense. It had to do, oddly enough, with rock music. Back in June 2007, Hillary attempted to write a $1 million earmark for a museum commemorating the Woodstock festival in Bethel, New York. Not that anyone should have anything against Woodstock, but it seems weird to ask taxpayers to pay for it -- especially when the project is principally funded by one of America's richest men, a media mogul named Alan Gerry. Listed as number 297 on the annual Forbes list of wealthy Americans, Gerry reportedly has a net worth of $1.6 billion. Beyond the fact that he hardly needs the money, there is this to consider: On June 30th of last year, exactly three days after the earmark was officially inserted into an appropriations bill, Gerry and his wife both made maximum donations to Hillary's presidential campaign, totaling $9,200.

The deal stank, even by congressional standards. When Republican opponents introduced an amendment to kill the earmark, the measure passed easily. "Most of our amendments fail by fifty or sixty votes," says John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, an anti-earmark crusader who introduced the amendment to kill the handout. "But this one passed with no problem. It was so over-the-top."

The thing that's really vile about earmarks is how cheaply we all get sold out. Two million of your taxpayer bucks in exchange for a $5,000 donation? Greenlighting a billion-dollar Pentagon boondoggle for a couple of free flights? Hey, if you're going to sell us out, at least fucking bargain. But it's not their money, and they never do.

Hillary isn't alone among the candidates in selling us down the river for a few campaign contributions. Unlike Clinton, who has only disclosed the pork she actually succeeded in doling out, Barack Obama has supplied reporters with a list of every earmark he requested. But the list only served to highlight Obama's own pork, including $8 million for a "High Explosive Air Burst Technology Program" that would have been overseen by General Dynamics. Obama's Illinois finance chairman, James Crown, not only sits on the board of General Dynamics, he and his wife are both Obama bundlers who have raised more than $200,000 for Obama's campaign. Obama was also alone among the remaining candidates last year in using his leadership PAC to hand out money to politicians whose support he sought in his presidential run.

McCain, meanwhile, has run a finger-wagging, holier-than-thou campaign. He insists he doesn't request any earmarks, even though he has: In 2003, he doled out $14.3 million to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. He also insists that he is "the only one the special interests don't give any money to," even though he has lapped the field when it comes to surrounding himself with lobbyists. Public Citizen, the nonprofit watchdog group, has identified sixty-six current or former lobbyists who are either major fundraisers or bundlers for McCain, a number that far exceeds either Clinton or Obama. Like Hillary, McCain has not been shy about doing favors for his lobbyist friends while milking their companies for campaign contributions. As chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain obliged several firms, including Paxson Communications and Glencairn, by proposing an amendment that would have enabled them to own multiple TV stations in the same market. Though the measure was never adopted, Paxson rewarded McCain with a flight on its private jet, and a Glencairn executive made donations to McCain's campaign a month after he held the hearing.

But neither McCain nor Obama have been able to match Clinton when it comes to playing on their connections for campaign contributions. Last fall, while Obama was answering questions about using his leadership PAC to give $10,000 donations to politicians who supported him in key campaign-trail states, no one blinked when former senator Bob Kerrey showed up in Iowa to campaign for Hillary. Kerrey these days is president of the New School in Manhattan, which, like Butts' Abyssinian Development Corporation, scored more than $1.5 million in federal earmarks this year courtesy of Hillary. The school also boasts three trustees who are "Hillraisers" or Hillary bundlers -- meaning they've raised $100,000 apiece for her presidential run. The notorious scam artist Norman Hsu, who raised $850,000 for Clinton before being indicted for fraud last December, was another New School trustee.

Nor is Hillary shy about funneling earmarks to big donors who don't even need the money. Real estate developer Robert Congel, another Hillary earmark recipient who has graced the Forbes list, scored $10 million in pork courtesy of Hillary for use in developing, of all things, a megamall. Why the hell we need to pay taxes to help billionaires build luxury shopping malls is a troubling enough question, without even considering the $26,700 that Congel and his wife have contributed to Hillary over the years. That's all it costs to get $10 million out of a U.S. senator? Where are the pitchforks?

Earmarking is only one small slice of the political cash game, but it has the advantage of being a slice we can actually see and quantify. And what we see of Hillary's record here suggests a couple of things. One: She has no qualms whatsoever about trading your tax money for personal political capital. And two: She likes to trade much of that money for favors in the defense sector, even if it hurts the people doing the defending.

As is often the case with defense earmarks, some of Hillary's pork spending is taken out of the Army's Operation and Maintenance budget, which is supposed to be used for troop-support initiatives like body armor. In simple terms, Hillary's rampant marauding of the defense budget takes money away from troops in the field. Soldiers wind up short on equipment, and Clinton winds up with hefty campaign contributions and free flights on private jets. Carrying charges, my boy, carrying charges!

If earmarks are just a little slice of the pie in the Washington cash game, imagine what would happen if Hillary got to serve up the whole meal. It's been so long since the Clintons were in office that we scarcely remember all those funny-sounding names of scandal-plagued campaign contributors -- names like Roger Tamraz, "Charlie" Trie, Wang Jun and John Huang. When it comes to the Clintons and money, there was always somebody with a story buried beneath the line item, a hard-to-find dollar figure stuck to every Calvin Butts or Robert Congel. Are we really ready to go back to those days full time?

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.