Once a selling point for lawmakers, congressionally directed spending – otherwise known as earmarks or “pork barrel” projects – is becoming a liability for many incumbents in Campaign 2010.
With the federal deficit at $1.5 trillion, some voters are balking at politicians touting their record of bringing home the bacon. Earmark fatigue figured in the recent primary defeats of three-term Sen. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah and five-term Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania. Both Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington face close races that are shaping up as a referendum on earmarking.
In Nevada, Republican Sharron Angle, backed by “tea party” activists, has charged that Senator Reid’s earmarks wasted federal dollars. Reid maintains they helped create jobs in a state especially hard hit by a housing and economic downturn. In Washington, former state Sen. Dino Rossi, who advanced after a primary Tuesday, is making Senator Murray’s “18-year record on spending” a centerpiece of his campaign. Both Ms. Angle and Mr. Rossi have called for an outright ban on earmarks.
“Earmarks used to be a pure bonus for lawmakers,” says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group. “But because of more voter concern about corruption, deficits, and government spending, it’s shifted from being benign and positive to a negative in a number of cases.”
In March, after a spike of ethics concerns involving corporate gifts and earmarks, the House Democrats heading the Appropriations Committee banned earmarks to for-profit companies – a move expected to lower considerably the number and scope of earmarks in the spending bills for fiscal year 2011, which have yet to pass the Congress.
“It was getting to the point where earmarks were beginning to crowd out the oversight process,” says Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. “That’s why we instituted the reforms to get firm control of the process.”
These reforms, launched after Democrats took control of the House in 2007, include requirements that every bill include a list of earmarks and that members make their requests public. “The only reason these [earmarking] stories are even possible is that the Democratic Congress has completely revised the earmarking process,” Mr. Brachman adds, noting that since 2007 Democrats have cut the number of earmarks roughly in half. [Editor's note: The original version did not include this paragraph, which was added to better explain what has happened since 2007. Also, the beginning of the next paragraph was amended to provide a clear transition between the new paragraph and the original material.]
A day after Democrats acted this past March, House Republicans responded with a voluntary, one-year ban on all earmarks, which was subsequently respected by all but four House Republicans – Reps. Henry Brown of South Carolina, Anh Cao of Louisiana, Ron Paul of Texas, and Don Young of Alaska.
As a result, the number of earmarks in the House version of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations act for fiscal year 2011 has only half the number of earmarked projects that it did in FY 2010. The bill contains 553 projects costing $424 million, according to a preliminary analysis released on Tuesday by Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW).
“The decrease is due to the fact that fewer Republicans in the House are requesting them,” says David Williams, CAGW vice president for policy. Lawmakers “will not brag about the teapot museum or bridge to nowhere. It’s not a badge of honor anymore. It’s a mark of shame.”
But, he adds, he has heard that House Republicans are discussing with their home-state senators earmarks that they would have requested were it not for the ban. Senators have yet to act on the legislation.
Still, Republicans aim to recast the image of overspending on earmarks that they developed during their 12 years in control of the House. The year 2006 – the last year of GOP control – marked a high-water mark for congressional spending, at $29 billion. The new tough stance on earmarks will boost GOP prospects in midterm elections, House Republican leaders say.
“The American people are looking at Washington Democrats’ out-of-control spending spree and shouting ‘stop’ at the top of their lungs. House Republicans are listening, and our earmark moratorium is an example of how we’re standing on principle and offering better solutions,” says Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner.
But deficits and wasting taxpayer dollars aren’t the only concerns with earmarks. Lawmakers also worry about the public perception that the earmarking process breeds corruption or pay-to-play politics. When Republicans lost control of the House in 2006 elections, it was after earmarking scandals involving then-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R) of California, convicted in 2005 of soliciting millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for defense earmarks; and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, convicted in 2006 of conspiring to bribe public officials. Democrats campaigned in 2006 to “clean up the swamp” in Washington.
Now, Democrats are working to contain ethics scandals on the eve of midterm elections. In addition to upcoming House ethics trials for Reps. Charles Rangel (D) of New York and Maxine Waters (D) of California, Democrats have been battling allegations that the now-disbanded lobbying firm PMA Group, headed by a former aide to the late Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, used campaign contributions to win earmarks for its clients.
In 2009, the independent Office of Congressional Ethics had found that PMA clients “perceived a connection between appropriations requests and campaign contributions.” In March, the House ethics panel cleared seven lawmakers – six Democrats and one Republican – of ethics violations related to this probe, citing a reluctance to interfere with an ongoing federal investigation.
Some Republicans are dubbing Mr. Magliocchetti the Democrats’ Jack Abramoff. But it’s not yet clear whether members of Congress will be caught up in this criminal investigation – or, if so, whether it will break before midterm elections.
“PMA was heavily tied to the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and its late Chairman John Murtha (D-PA). We'll have to see where this ends, but one thing is clear: this is even more evidence that the current system for earmarking funds for pet projects is fundamentally flawed,” said Mr. Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, in a statement after the indictment.