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.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
John McCain, a staunch opponent of earmarks, asked a question of President Obama at February's Fiscal Responsibility Summit.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Sen. Thad Cochran is the top earmarker.

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.

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.

“Now, maybe that Franklin, Texas, school needs a sidewalk. Maybe other places need a sidewalk, too,” he said.

The issue is a tough one for the Obama White House. The president campaigned to drop earmarks back to their 1994 level – the year before Republicans took control of the House and the practice of earmarking soared.

The president barred earmarks from last month’s $787 billion stimulus package, but advisers say the fiscal year 2009 omnibus bill, including earmarks, is old business.

“This is last year’s business. We just want to move on. Let’s get this bill done, get it into law and move forward,” said Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. The president will sign the bill, despite earmarks, he said.
In a sign of how controversial the practice has become, the Senate Appropriations panel last week removed the name of then-Senator Obama from sponsorship of a $7.7 million earmark for vocational training for native Americans in the omnibus bill. The inclusion of Obama on the list had been a mistake, said John Bray, deputy communications director for the committee.

At the time Obama requested the funds, the request did not identify particular recipients – a defining feature of earmarks.

“It identified a set of criteria and awarded funding to any eligible entity,” he said in a statement. “The record will be corrected to reflect these facts.”

In a briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president will soon “outline a process of dealing with this problem in a different way.”

“The rules of the road going forward for those many appropriations bills that will go through Congress and come to his desk will be done differently,” he said.

As a US senator, Obama cosponsored an amendment with Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina to back a one-year moratorium on earmarks in the 2009 fiscal year spending cycle.

“President Obama has a chance to take one of the biggest steps toward real earmark reform in years,” Senator DeMint wrote in his blog on Monday.

Senators have traditionally been the most avid supporters of earmarking, which they see as a congressional prerogative. Led by longtime appropriator Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, senators make the case that the executive branch should not have the only say in where federal dollars are spent, since the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse.

Budget analysts say the issue has been blown all out of proportion to the importance of earmarking in the federal budget.

“It’s closer to a drop in the bucket, but because politicians devote so much time to it – and the media does – it’s become a laugh line on late night television,” says Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in Washington.

“I’d much rather have people focus on entitlement reform. Until we do, the American public will discredit the [budget] process,” she says.

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