Call it the great earmark race.
Since Democrats took back control of the House in 2007, March has been the season for members in both parties to rush to complete paperwork for the next fiscal year’s earmarks, or member projects, for their districts.
But this year, both parties are competing to distance themselves from a practice dubbed “the gateway drug to corruption” or spending addiction.
On Wednesday, top Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee announced a ban on corporate earmarks. The move, backed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, bans provisions that direct spending to for-profit entities, especially those dealing with the Pentagon.
In a bid to trump that move, House Republicans on Thursday announced a unilateral, one-year ban on all earmarks. “The American people see this earmark process as an example of a broken Washington,” said Republican leader John Boehner, after a caucus meeting on Thursday.
“We’re not going to get to a cleaned-up process until we break from the past, and I do believe that this earmark ban that our members agreed to today is a big step in the right direction,” he added.
The decision came after a spirited, closed debate in the Republican caucus. Some members argued strongly that members' projects are part of Congress’s constitutional responsibility under Article I, and that leaving decisions on all spending within a member’s district to federal bureaucrats is an abrogation of that responsibility.
But a series of high-profile corruption cases involving earmarks put the process under a harsher light. Last month, the House ethics panel cleared six lawmakers of wrongdoing in connection with alleged pay-to-play schemes and the PMA Group lobbying firm, now disbanded, involving campaign contributions in exchange for earmarks.
That decision was badly received by Washington’s watchdog community.
“The head-in-the-sand approach that the ethics committee took was so ridiculous on its face,” says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks earmarks. “Everybody else thinks that campaign contributions beget earmarks. Even friendly editorial pages were critical.”
In addition to contributing to a perception of corruption, earmarks also fuel public concerns that Congress is spending unwisely.
“Perception is reality,” says Rep. David Dreier of California, the top Republican on the Rules Committee. “There is a perception that every penny of US tax dollars is going to earmarks.” [In fact, it’s less than 2 percent.] “The American people are angry, and we want to signal that we get the message,” he adds.
The move was a special vindication for Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, who, since coming to the House in 2001, has waged a near-one-man campaign for banning earmarks.
After two years of wearing down his colleagues on the point at caucus meetings, he took his objections to the floor of the House, where he engineered hundreds of votes to challenge individual member projects.
In 2007, he won his only victory when House members voted to cut out a $129,000 earmark for “the Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree” in North Carolina.
“The fact that Democrats have decided to go ahead with an earmark ban was motivating to us,” he said. "Hopefully, the Democrats will now match us.”
On the Senate side, there is little interest in joining the race to limit earmarks. “I don’t believe this policy or ceding authority to the executive branch on any spending decision is in the best interests of the Congress or the American people,” said Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a statement. “In my view it does not make sense to discriminate against for-profit organizations.”
But Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, the Senate’s version of an earmark gadfly, hailed the House Republicans' move as long overdue. It’s a “common sense step that will help Congress win back the trust of the public and tackle our mounting fiscal challenges,” he said in a statement.
Even if the Senate fails to act, President Obama, who campaigned against earmarks, could sway the outcome, watchdog groups say. “The Senate is still not immune to public pressure, and if the president says, ‘I’m going to veto any spending bill that has earmarks for for-profit companies in it,’ he could be a game-changer,” says Mr. Ellis.