If Congress gets into funding local projects, there will be no end to it, and it might be "productive of evil."
So warned President James Monroe in 1822. Since then, members of Congress have siphoned off billions in federal tax dollars for their own projects, or, some say, "pork." Previous bids to limit or end this practice of earmarks have proven as doable as nudging a spring chick back into its egg.
But this week, Congress is on track for its boldest step yet. The reason? Republicans are increasingly anxious about this fall's elections, and, with gas prices soaring, the public is paying attention to waste and corruption in Washington.
Higher gas prices are "making the public more conscious of waste and corruption," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
Americans in a recent poll said that ending earmarks should be the No. 1 priority for Congress this session, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last week. Thirty-nine percent said that members should be prohibited from "directing federal funds to specific projects benefiting only certain constituents."
In the House, still reeling from the scandals involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and ex-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, Republican leaders are pushing for the disclosure of the names of members who propose earmarks and are seeking a process to remove them.
It's an issue that roils those on spending committees, who nearly derailed the GOP lobby reform bill over the issue of earmark reform. Under pressure from House leaders, the appropriators caved, on condition that earmark reform be extended to taxwriting committees as well.
"It's our only chance to maintain the majority. It really is," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, a lead sponsor of earmark reform, after the vote.
In the Senate, the fight is over reining in spending. In a political move only used once before in the US Senate, freshman Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma is forcing his colleagues this week to vote on individual pork projects attached to a $106.5 billion emergency defense bill.
He lost the first round, barely. His effort to drop the so-called railroad to nowhere, a $700 million project to relocate a recently repaired railway line away from the Gulf Coast, was heading toward success. But Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, one of the project's chief promoters, armed himself with charts and photos of the Gulf Coast and made a last-minute, personal appeal to GOP moderates and saved the railroad funding, 49-48.
But, in a move that stunned the chamber, Senator Coburn won his next bid to remove a $15 million earmark for a Gulf seafood ad campaign. "I guess Senator Coburn is the new Miss Congeniality," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a reference to the heat one takes from peers for opposing pork projects. "I hope we can pry some more pork out of it," he added.
This week, the Oklahoma freshman is going after 17 other earmarks, amounting to $2,680,145,000. (Unlike most other senators, Coburn doesn't round big numbers: Every zero counts.) These include $100,000 for a drivers' license facility in Georgia, $500 million to cover business disruption expenses for Northrop Grumman, and $20 million for a study of shrimp and reef fishery profitability.
"Hurricane Katrina should not be an excuse for corporate welfare," Coburn wrote to his colleagues last week.
Until the 1900s, earmarks were rarely used on Capitol Hill. In 1987, President Reagan vetoed a highway bill because it had targeted funds for member demonstration projects. In 1988, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a report showing all unauthorized projects, or member earmarks, in that year's appropriations bills.
"Lawmakers told OMB that if they ever did it again, they would cut their budget," says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, which has published a list of earmarks since 1991.
Other budget-cutting groups hail a new mood on Capitol Hill. "Pigs are going to start flying," says Ed Frank, a spokesman for the Ending Earmarks Express, a project of the conservative Americans for Prosperity Foundation. "The voice of the taxpayers is finally being heard in Congress."
Still, the Senate version of lobby reform falls short of the House proposal. It provides a process to eliminate earmarks that were added late in the legislative process, but does not require lawmakers to disclose their sponsorship of earmarks.