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Pesky earmarks still in eye of budget storm

‘Member projects’ are a tiny part of the federal budget, but they’re a problem for Obama.

By Staff writer / March 3, 2009

John McCain, a staunch opponent of earmarks, asked a question of President Obama at February's Fiscal Responsibility Summit.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP



Member projects – aka earmarks or “pork” – account for less than 2 percent of spending in the $410 billion omnibus bill on the floor of the Senate this week, but they’re drawing most of the opposition fire.

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The bill, which will fund government for the balance of the 2009 fiscal year, includes 8,570 earmarks worth $7.7 billion, according to a new report by Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington.

“I just went through a campaign where both candidates promised change in Washington; promised change from the wasteful, disgraceful, corrupting practice of earmark, pork-barrel spending,” said Sen. John McCain in a stem-winder on the floor of the Senate on Monday.

“We have former members of Congress residing in federal prisons. Not only is this business as usual, but this is an outrageous insult to the American people,” said the Arizona Republican.

At issue is more than just the dollar amount of spending, critics say. The time and effort to secure earmarks for 1 or 2 percent of government spending take up time that members could better spend on the hard work of overseeing the other 98 percent-plus. Moreover, the success of some groups in securing earmarks encourages others to spend scarce public dollars to pay to lobby Washington.

“Members say it’s a little thing that they do, but it really gets taxpayers angry,” says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, which produces an annual “Pig Book” identifying member projects in spending bills.

“I think that people recognize that it’s inherently unfair and disproportionate in how these earmarks get allocated – mostly to members of the appropriations committees,” he says.

Some critics see this issue as a rallying cry for a battered Republican Party to win back the House and Senate, but they’ve got a problem: Republicans are nearly as successful in bringing home the bacon for their constituents as Democrats – and in no mood to change the practice. GOP senators account for six of the top 10 sponsors of earmarks, according to the Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Few issues in public life lend themselves so well to attack ads, especially in hard economic times. Here’s the formula: Pick a silly-sounding earmark – or give one a great name, such as “Bridge to Nowhere” – then remind voters that while they struggle, members of Congress are wasting money or (worse) angling for bribes.

“I ask the senator from Hawaii [Sen. Daniel Inouye (D), who chairs the Appropriations Committee]: Why do we need to spend $2 million to promote astronomy in Hawaii when unemployment is going up and the stock market is tanking? Do we really need to continue this wasteful process?” McCain asked his colleague.

McCain, the longest-serving earmark opponent in the Senate, also noted: $1.7 million in the bill for pig odor research in Iowa; $6.6 million for termite research in New Orleans; $2.1 million for the Center for Grape Genetics in New York; $1.7 million for a honeybee factory in Weslaco, Texas; $143,000 for an online encyclopedia in Nevada; $150,000 for a rodeo museum in South Dakota; $238,000 for the Alaska PTA, and $333,000 for a school sidewalk in Franklin, Texas.