After moving earlier this year to make the federal budget process more transparent to the public, Congress is falling short of its goal of full and timely disclosure of lawmakers' pet projects, or earmarks.
Despite lawmakers' promises to slash earmarks by half, the spending bills for this fiscal year – now wending their way through the appropriations process – include at least 12,000 earmarks totaling more than $24.7 billion, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Moreover, say watchdog groups and some members, Congress has waived its own new rules on these spending add-ons, meaning the public is unable to see earmarks on a searchable database before they come up for a vote. Millions of dollars in projects are still being "air-dropped" into final bills behind closed doors, they charge.
Only two projects – $129,000 for the "home of the perfect Christmas tree" project in Spruce Pine, N.C., and $1 million for a museum to celebrate the 1969 music festival in Woodstock, Vt. – were voted out of bills this year after challenges on the floor.
But public interest in waste and corruption – and Americans' rising distrust of Congress as an institution – continues to act as a prod toward greater transparency and disclosure on Capitol Hill.
Latest idea to spur reform
On Thursday, a group of House GOP appropriators called for the establishment of a Joint Select Committee on Earmark Reform. The new committee, evenly split between the House and Senate majority and minority parties, would investigate earmarking as practiced both by the Congress and the executive branch. It would also cover all congressional committees. The resolution, which was not initiated by the Republican leadership, has 72 Republican sponsors.
"The level of reform presented and adopted by the Congress so far has not convinced the public that things have changed in Washington," says Rep. Zach Wamp (R) of Tennessee, a cosponsor. "We need sweeping reforms in a comprehensive way on how earmarks are decided in authorization, appropriations, tax and tariff bills, and administration requests."
If such a reform is truly comprehensive, there's a good possibility of picking up Democratic support as well, the resolution's sponsors say.
"When you have stories on a daily basis on earmarks, the pressure is going to be there," says Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, who has alienated many colleagues on both sides of the aisle by calling for floor votes to strip member earmarks.
A smattering of self-discipline
"The good news is that we're beginning to see the most egregious projects rescinded by members before they go to conference [committee with the other chamber]," says Keith Ashdown, principal investigator of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group.
Exhibit A is the $1 million earmark sponsored by New York's Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and Charles Schumer (D) to fund the Museum at Bethel Woods. Critics quickly dubbed it the "hippie museum" because it focused on the August 1969 Woodstock festival.
With Senator Clinton's high profile in the 2008 presidential race, the earmark made headlines and came up in the candidate debates. But what troubles watchdog groups is the appearance of a quid pro quo between the earmark and some $29,200 in campaign contributions to the earmark's sponsors.
In a rare 52-to-42 vote, the Senate agreed on Oct. 18 to drop the earmark.
"Because it was a Clinton earmark, it drew a lot of attention from Republicans, and we got a lot of Republican support we don't often get on our amendments," says John Hart, spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, who sponsored the amendment challenging this earmark. "There was an element of drama in this earmark that you don't get in your typical parking garage [project]."
But Senator Coburn has lost all other challenges to pork-barrel spending this year, including one to drop all earmarks on the transportation bill until each structurally deficient bridge in America is fixed. The vote failed 80 to 12.
Repercussions of speaking out
One reason is that members are afraid to run afoul of the powerful Appropriations Committees in both the House and Senate. Those few members who have sponsored amendments to strip earmarks say they get a lot of heat from their colleagues.
"It's been a real mixed bag," says first-term Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina.
"I've never had so much attention and adoration outside of Washington – I get standing ovations when I talk about earmarks. But I have a lot of good old friends who are mad at me in the Senate," he says of his fellow GOP senators.
"But what can they do to me?" he adds. "We're now in the minority, so we don't have a lot to lose. New members see that earmarks are bankrupting our country and our party and [have] corrupted our members.