United States Capitol, July 2011

How earmarks pay off for the earmarkers

The case of a Kansas Congressman benefiting from earmark spending once out of office should make us glad the practice has ended, and we should be wary of those who call for its return.

The case of United States House of Representatives Appropriations Committee Member Todd Tiahrt and Neumann Systems is an illustration of the revolving door between government and the private sector. It started with an earmark. An Air Force budgetary document indicates that the earmark spending was at the direction of Congress: “In FY 2006, Congress added $1.2 million for the High Power Fiber Laser Program, and $0.5 million for Oxygen Laser Optical Source.”

Excerpt from Air Force budgetary document.
Excerpt from Air Force budgetary document.

Later in the same document we see “CONGRESSIONAL ADD.” So it’s not like the Air Force asked for this money. Instead, it was added by appropriators in the House of Representatives, of which Todd Tiahrt was a member and appropriator. The oxygen laser spending was an earmark, in other words. It went to a company called Direct Energy Solutions, located in Colorado Springs. Its CEO was David Neumann, who also heads a related company named Neumann Systems Group, Inc.

While this may seem like a small amount of federal money spent on a defense research project, the earmark spending appears to have paid off for Tiahrt. Not only did Tiahrt receive contributions from Neumann for his campaigns both past and present, he also received a client for his consulting firm and, ultimately, a job. When Neumann needed to recover from an illness, Tiahrt worked for Neumann’s company and was paid some $380,000 over two years, according to financial disclosures.

Neumann System Groups had received a contract to build an exhaust gas scrubber for an electrical power plant owned by the City of Colorado Springs. The scubber is controversial. In this article from January 2013, Tiahrt said the scubber would removs sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, but the scubber that is being built will remove only the sulfur compound. Costs seem to have soared over original estimates. The contract is “cost plus” and according to reporting, was awarded without competitive bid. (Costs, doubts rise at Colorado Springs power plant, Colorado Springs Gazette)

None of this was illegal or contrary to ethics codes. It’s just the way the way Washington has worked, with earmarks forging and cementing relationships between Members of Congress and their benefactors.

Earmarks have been banned in Congress since 2010. But not everyone is happy, with progressive lawmakers like Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois calling for the return of the “glue” that used to hold bills together. But the Wall Street Journal recently commented that Congress is working better without earmarks, resulting in more oversight of, and accountability for, spending.

As he campaigns for a return to Congress, Tiahrt has unabashedly called for a return of earmark spending, telling audiences that the practice did not increase the level of spending. There’s plenty of evidence, along with common sense, that tells us that earmarks do increase spending.

But some people think it’s fun to spend other peoples’ money, and as shown by the post-Congress career path of Todd Tiahrt, it can be lucrative, too.


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