Politics & Policy

Pelosi’s Waterworks

The Speaker oversees Beltway business as usual.

Did Nancy Pelosi do anything wrong when she sponsored a $25 million earmark for a waterfront-redevelopment project near several properties in which her husband has a financial stake? It depends on whether she had any reason to believe that the project would cause the values of her husband’s properties to rise.

According to new House ethics rules that Speaker Pelosi herself championed back in January, members sponsoring earmarks have to sign a form stating that neither they nor their spouse has any financial interest in the provision. A spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee tells National Review Online that Pelosi signed such a statement for the earmark in question.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill did not return a call seeking comment for this article, but he told an AP reporter that it is “speculative at best” that Pelosi would see a financial gain as a result of this earmark. The problem with such logic is that most future financial gains, especially in real estate, are speculative in nature. Advocates for tougher rules governing earmarks argue that such potential conflicts of interest should be disclosed.

Comparisons between Pelosi’s earmark and a similar controversy surrounding Dennis Hastert’s real-estate deals have popped up in the press in recent days. The stories are similar, but with a few illuminating differences. For one, it remains an open question as to whether Hastert properly disclosed his land holdings, which increased in value when he secured $207 million for a new highway nearby.

Pelosi fully disclosed her husband’s investments. The only question is whether she acted properly when she certified that she had no financial interest in the waterfront redevelopment project, given the possibility, however “speculative,” that it could cause the value of her husband’s property to rise.

Also, Hastert’s highway project was controversial, and he was by far its most powerful proponent. Pelosi’s defenders are pointing out that the Port of San Francisco and the mayor’s office approached her with the proposal, which she then included as an earmark in the water-resources-development bill that passed the House last month. In other words, it’s not some plan she concocted to help her husband’s properties go up in value.

That’s true, but it’s not the whole story. Earlier this week a Congressional Quarterly report expanded the timeline:

The Speaker got a $20 million earmark for the same waterfront redevelopment project placed in a bill in July 2005, but the measure died. The following December, her husband increased his interest in one of the properties in question for an amount between $1 million and $5 million, according to financial disclosure forms.

So even though the waterfront-redevelopment project was popular and did not originate in the Speaker’s office, the question remains whether Pelosi’s husband, investor Paul Pelosi, increased his stake in these properties with an eye towards his wife’s likelihood of becoming the next Speaker. Being Speaker of the House has several advantages, one of which is that the earmarks you sponsor tend to get passed. Just ask Dennis Hastert.

For now, it appears that the problem is less with Pelosi’s disclosure on this particular earmark and more with the state of earmark reform in general. The Democrats swept into power making a lot of noise about cleaning up the “culture of corruption” in Washington. Earmark reform was a big part of their stated agenda. First, they put a “moratorium on earmarks” until new rules governing them could be put into place. Then the House passed new earmark-disclosure requirements. “It’s good that we’re even having this discussion about Pelosi’s earmark,” Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, tells NRO, “because now [thanks to new disclosure requirements] we know that she’s the one who asked for it.”

But that’s where Democrats left it. The House rules apply only to the House. The Senate lumped earmark reform into its ethics and lobbying bill, which is now languishing in conference and has yet to take effect. Nevertheless, the Democrats must think these half-measures constitute thorough earmark reform, because the moratorium is long gone. The Water Resources Development Bill contains, along with Pelosi’s earmark, more than 800 others. Perhaps the most egregious is a provision to add sand to a California beach famous for its annual sandcastle competition.

The Democrats campaigned as a party that would clean up Washington. But the water-development bill, exemplified by Pelosi’s earmark, is nothing if not Beltway business as usual.


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