More than a year before launching his White House campaign, Sen. John McCain wrote a letter urging the Bush administration to set aside tens of millions of dollars to build a new port of entry in Arizona to allow more trucks to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
Five weeks after he joined the U.S. Senate, Sen. BarackObama and other lawmakers from Illinois sent a letter to the administration in support of a grant proposal by the University of Chicago at a time his wife was earning a six-figure salary at the university's medical center.
The letters from both presidential candidates, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal a side of the budget process largely overshadowed by the "earmarking" practice that Mr. McCain frequently assails on the campaign trail. With increasing negativity surrounding earmarking, by which members of Congress slip pet projects into broader bills, lawmakers frequently push for projects in their home states by sending requests directly to federal agencies.
Such spending requests, sent privately to agencies, fall outside the public's view and don't achieve the sort of budget transparency that both presidential candidates have argued is essential for controlling spending.
"It's becoming more and more common as the subject of earmarking becomes more controversial," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Aides to Mr. McCain cite his $42 million request for the San Luis, Ariz., port of entry in the fiscal 2007 budget as an example of exactly how members of Congress should encourage federal money for worthy projects back home. The letter was sent after the project failed to receive funding in the fiscal 2006 budget. It won funding in 2007.
"Senator McCain encouraged, based on the merits, that the administration fund a project in the submission of its budget [that] would be subject to debate in the House and the Senate," McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers said. "You make your case and let the regular order of the legislative process determine whether it's a national priority. That's precisely how the process is supposed to work."
He pointed out that the General Services Administration (GSA) had requested the funding and that U.S. Customs and Border Protection listed the project as its highest priority for the southern border.
Ms. Sloan said the request is still troubling.
"It may not technically be an earmark, but it certainly looks like an earmark," she said. "He says he doesn't earmark, but then he sends a letter like this. When [the letter] says, 'I urge you to fully fund,' it looks like an earmark."
Tom Schatz, president of the nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste, said Mr. McCain's letter doesn't meet the earmarking definition because it's a project for which the GSA had requested funding.
Pete Sepp, vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, agreed, saying the request at some point would be subject to congressional hearings.
"Is this an earmarked request? By most definitions, probably not," Mr. Sepp said.
Mr. Obama has disclosed hundreds of millions of dollars in earmark requests he has made since taking office in 2005, but he, too, sought support for home-state initiatives by writing letters. In February 2005, the junior senator signed a letter with several other lawmakers from Illinois to the Bush administration in support of the University of Chicago's request for a competitive multimillon-dollar grant.
At the time, Mr. Obama's wife was working as an executive for the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Mr. Obama's campaign said no conflict of interest arose because Mrs. Obama wasn't involved in the research grant, which eventually went to another institution.
"Senator Obama joined a bipartisan coalition of Illinois members of Congress led by [House] Speaker Dennis Hastert in requesting funding for a previously established biodefense center, one of only several that exists around the nation, that includes the University of Chicago and 13 other Midwestern institutions and is charged with preparing the region to combat an outbreak," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt.
"Michelle Obama was not a lobbyist, and the medical center maintained a clear division between the personnel involved in community relations and federal government relations," he said.
Both candidates support additional disclosure of such funding requests, aides said.
"Sure, while additional disclosure is always good, it unfortunately will not stop government waste," Mr. Rogers said. "Only a real leader like John McCain with the courage to veto all earmarks can do that."
Mr. LaBolt said, "Senator Obama has sponsored legislation that requires members of Congress to disclose their earmark requests, and he would support legislation that required members of Congress to disclose all of their funding requests."
The Obama-signed request called the University of Chicago "the Midwest's leader in national biodefense and homeland security research efforts."
The request wasn't the last time Mr. Obama sought federal money for the university system. Earlier this year, his campaign disclosed an old $1 million earmark request on behalf of the University of Chicago's medical center to build a new pavilion. Mr. Obama's campaign and the hospital have said Mrs. Obama wasn't involved and the earmark was denied. Officials also have pointed out that Mr. Obama has sought money for other hospitals in Illinois.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said he sees no conflict of interest if Mrs. Obama wasn't involved in the requests. Still, he said, the letter on behalf of the university's grant proposal raises questions about the general practice of elected officials weighing in on a competitive grant selection process, where an award is supposed to be decided on the scientific merits.
"It's a little concerning," he said. "Congress shouldn't be trying to influence a competitive award situation."
In a reply to the Illinoisan lawmakers' request, the Office of Legislative Affairs for Homeland Security noted that the award process for the grant was "highly competitive" and the University of Chicago would receive the same consideration as other applications.
McCain aides have lambasted Mr. Obama on the subject of earmarks, saying the senator from Illinois has requested nearly $1 billion in earmarks since joining the Senate. Mr. McCain, meanwhile, "has never requested an earmark," Mr. Rogers said.
Regarding the McCain letter, James Chessum, administrator of the Greater Yuma, Ariz., Port Authority, which oversees the project, said organizers turned to Mr. McCain and other members of Arizona's congressional delegation after the San Luis port project was not included in the 2006 budget.
"He doesn't believe in earmarks, but we didn't feel like this was an earmark," Mr. Chessum said. "It was basically a government request. It wasn't like us going in and saying, nobody wants this but us. The agencies agreed they needed it.
"We just wanted to make sure it stayed a priority."
In his letter to GSA Administrator Stephen Perry and Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten, Mr. McCain called funding for the project "essential."
"As you prepare the administration's budget for fiscal 2007, I urge you to fully fund the San Luis commercial port of entry project along the Arizona-Mexico border," he wrote.
He also called the project "an excellent opportunity to expedite travel and commerce across our southern border and improve our trade capabilities with our southern neighbors."
Jim McElhatton is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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