It's shaping up to be a lean year for pork-barrel spending on Capitol Hill, as both congressional and presidential earmarks face new scrutiny in an election year.
Delivering the bacon to constituents back home used to be a net gain for politicians, but it's emerging as a key theme in campaign ads that attack incumbents for waste or corruption. Now, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are grappling with how far to push curbs on the practice in the spending cycle for fiscal year 2009 and beyond.
House Republicans opened a new front in the war on earmarks last week when they proposed a moratorium on them, and then forced a floor vote on it. The measure, which also called for a bipartisan select committee to overhaul the process, failed 204 to 196, with all but seven Democrats voting in opposition. "We will keep looking for opportunities to get them on the record on this issue, but it falls to House Democrats to decide whether to join us in this reform," says Michael Steel, a spokesman for Republican leader John Boehner.
Democrats note that they have already adopted earmark reforms, which include cutting the number of earmarks in half in the last spending cycle and requiring more transparency. "Earmarking got out of control under the Republicans, and President Bush didn't veto a single one. For them to all of a sudden claim earmark reform is a joke," says Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Failing an agreement on a moratorium, both parties are looking for ways to take the high ground on reform. House Democrats say they may introduce a bill this week to provide for an independent ethics board to vet complaints against individual members – a longtime demand of ethics watchdog groups in Washington.
Meanwhile, House Republicans are adopting a series of reform standards on earmarks, which they say will apply to all members of their caucus. These include: No more "monuments to me" – that is, public money to fund projects named after themselves. No more "airdrops," or adding special projects to bills at the last minute. No more laundering taxpayer funds by funding "front" operations that mask the true recipients.
But some GOP conservatives say that their party needs to go further and enforce a unilateral moratorium on member projects in FY 2009. Such a move would distinguish Republicans from Democrats, who won back the House and Senate in 2006 on a pledge to curb corruption. It could also help the party seize the initiative on what could become a signature issue in the 2008 campaign, if Sen. John McCain of Arizona wins the GOP presidential nomination.
"Republicans could meet President Bush's challenge to cut earmarks in half on their own, if they stopped earmarking," says John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, a leading opponent of earmarks.
Senator McCain unveiled ads in New Hampshire and South Carolina attacking Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, then the Democratic front-runner, for sponsoring a $1 million earmark for the so-called hippie museum in Bethel, N.Y.
New disclosure requirements on earmarks are making it easier for public interest groups – and campaign opponents – to identify members of Congress who sponsor earmarks that appear linked to campaign contributors.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R) of Mississippi, who was appointed to replace resigning Sen. Trent Lott last month, already faces criticism over a $6 million earmark he obtained for a defense contractor whose executives helped finance his last campaign for the House. Senator Wicker says that his decision to support the project was not influenced by the contributions.
"It's an interesting new development that more candidates are using the questionable pork-barrel politics of opponents against them," says Ed Frank, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which opposes earmarking. "There's a political downside to securing pork now – and it's a significant shift from even a year ago."
The higher level of scrutiny for earmarks is also extending to presidential earmarks. In a Feb. 6 letter to Republican leader Boehner, Speaker Pelosi said that Democrats "agree with you that the large number of presidential earmarks deserve the same scrutiny and restraint."
Presidential earmarks are harder to define than congressional ones, but are potentially much more extensive, critics say. "If only 10 percent of the noncompetitive contracts were the subject of political influence, that makes this a much bigger issue than all the congressional earmarks combined," says Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
While aides on both sides of the aisle say it is unlikely that Congress will complete spending bills for FY 2009 in this session, the debate is expected to highlight earmarks as never before.
"I guarantee that this year there will be many more amendments that come to the floor on both Democratic and Republican earmarks," says Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, a high-profile opponent of earmarks in the House.