SYRACUSE, N.Y. — It's a real estate developer's sugar-plum dream: a mega-shopping mall complete with 10 Broadway-style theaters, an indoor river, a Tuscan village and a 39-story luxury hotel sheathed in green solar panels shaped like giant blades of grass. Plus as much as $1 billion in government-backed financing, thanks in part to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Not everyone thinks the plan, known as Destiny USA and still in the early bulldozer stage, is a good idea. Many on the Syracuse City Council consider its tax breaks a waste of public money. Others fear it could damage the struggling downtown area. Others question whether all its dazzling features will ever be built.
One thing is clear, however: Destiny is a classic example of how New York's junior senator has embraced old-fashioned pork-barrel politics, first to build power in the state, then to extend it nationwide as she becomes a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
And to fuel her rise, Clinton has relied on the controversial funding device known as "earmarking." The earmarks enabled her to win favor with important constituents, many of whom provided financial support for her campaigns.
In the case of Destiny, she teamed up with other New York lawmakers to secure federal backing for the private investment project. And she collected tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the developer and others associated with the project.
Nor does the Syracuse project stand alone. From the beginning of her Senate career, Clinton saw earmarks -- which enable lawmakers to bypass the normal budget process and insert narrowly drafted spending provisions directly into legislation -- as a key to funneling aid to a depressed area and building political power among normally Republican-leaning voters.
Since taking office in 2001, Clinton has delivered $500 million worth of earmarks that have specifically benefited 59 corporations. About 64% of those corporations provided funds to her campaigns through donations made by employees, executives, board members or lobbyists, a review by the Los Angeles Times shows.
All told, Clinton has earmarked more than $2.3 billion in federal appropriations for projects in her state since her election to the Senate, much of it for public works projects funded in conjunction with fellow Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer and others in the New York congressional delegation.
A different scale
Clinton is not the biggest earmarker in Congress; senior congressional leaders and members of the appropriations committees can and do write many more such provisions into the huge spending bills they draft. But Clinton does significantly more earmarking than most others with her relatively low level of seniority.
Clinton's staff said she used the earmark privilege effectively for her constituents and denied any connection between her legislative action and campaign contributions.
Her record stands in contrast with others in the Senate seeking the presidency, particularly John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). McCain, who has long opposed earmarks, does not write them. Obama has used the device, but now declines to earmark funds for private companies; he uses earmarks only to secure funds for government projects such as road building and hospital construction. Other senators seeking the presidency provide earmarks to home-state constituents and collect donations from recipients of the federal largesse. But The Times review found that Clinton does it on a different scale.
For example, in the appropriations bills that have passed the Senate so far this year, Clinton earmarked 216 separate projects for a total of $236.6 million. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) secured $112.8 million; Obama earmarked $90.4 million, and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) earmarked projects totaling $70.8 million.
Since Clinton arrived in the Senate, she has collected in excess of $1 million from earmark beneficiaries and their associates.
"This pattern shows that Clinton has made aggressive use of the pay-to-play earmark game," said Keith Ashdown, research director for the Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington.
The practice of congressional earmarking has a long history. But in recent years, its use has skyrocketed, and earmarking has emerged at the center of high-profile scandals, including the one that sent former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of Rancho Santa Fe and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, both Republicans, to prison. Those scandals involved earmarks that led to the personal enrichment of lawmakers. There is no evidence of that in Clinton's case.
Because of the scandals, the practice of earmarking has become the subject of a heated debate among politicians, watchdog groups and good-government advocates.
Critics of earmarking object that it remains a relatively closed process that adds billions in spending directives, often over the objection of the president and Cabinet departments.