Features

Swearing off pork

"Swearing off pork" Continued...

Issue: "Realities: 2011-2020," Jan. 15, 2011

Some lawmakers build their reputation on the dollars they bring to their district: The priest speaking at the funeral for Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., an aggressive earmarker who died last year, eulogized, "The writer of Ecclesiastes could also have written 'a time to make law and a time to change laws, and, yes, a time to earmark.'"

Ending this favor factory would send a strong message, and many of the 63 new House and 6 new Senate Republicans campaigned by declaring war on pet projects. Senate earmark opponents could have enough votes-40-to hold a filibuster against pork-heavy spending bills.

Conservatives want to create a new special oversight panel within the powerful House Appropriations Committee that would focus solely on smoking out waste. New House Speaker John Boehner is proposing to break up the 12 annual spending packages to fund the federal government into additional, even smaller, bills. This would make it easier for lawmakers to scrub pet projects. House Republican leaders have also vowed to schedule weekly floor votes on the winners of an internet survey, called the YouCut program, where citizens vote on programs to kill. Over the last six months of 2010, the YouCut idea received 2 million online votes and allowed the GOP to propose, and House Democrats to ignore, more than $150 billion in cuts.

Is this belt-tightening a promise Republicans can keep? Additional hurdles remain, even within the GOP: Not long after approving the earmark ban, House Republicans made an interesting choice to head the purse-controlling Appropriations Committee. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers has earned the nickname "prince of pork" during his 30-plus year congressional career. Since 2008, Rogers has secured $257 million in earmarks, mostly for his Kentucky district. He ranked 10th out of 435 House members for his $99 million haul last year alone. His earmark expertise is so good that he outshone a national legend: Kentucky officials renamed the Daniel Boone Parkway the Hal Rogers Parkway. Now Rogers will be in charge of a committee that disburses annually about $1 trillion in non-entitlement federal dollars.

Tea Party cash fueled many campaigns last year. And ending earmarks is probably one of the top two-along with ending Obamacare-of the movement's priorities. But early signs are foreboding: 38 of the 52 members of last year's congressional Tea Party caucus, formed in July, requested hundreds of earmarks costing a total of more than $1 billion during Fiscal Year 2010, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.

And, coming along just as lawmakers have pledged to cut spending, costly infrastructure bills are due for major updates in the new Congress. This gives lawmakers added temptations to indulge in the favor factory. During their last renewals these bills for highways, water projects, and farms cost a combined half-trillion dollars, providing nearly every lawmaker with a pricey project to boast about back home.

Already some Republicans are backtracking, hinting that certain projects like roadwork should be exempt from the earmark ban. There are whispers that more lawmakers, looking for loopholes, will lean on the executive branch to get their special requests included in the president's annual budget. Items appearing in the budget are not dubbed earmarks. Critics are derisively dubbing the practice letter-marking and phone-marking.

"If any of these guys or gals goes against their pledge, we're going to slam them," said David Williams of Citizens Against Government Waste, a group that has led the campaign against earmarks, naming "porkers of the month" and publishing an annual "Pig Book."

In mid-December, lawmakers tried to get one last hit before going cold turkey with earmarks. During the congressional lame-duck session, the Democratic-controlled Congress proposed a 2,000-page, $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the government in 2011 that included $8 billion in earmarks. Among the 6,600 earmarks: $3.5 million for termite research in Louisiana, $350,000 for legume research in Idaho, and $1 million for arthropod damage in Nevada. Trying to squeeze in some pork before their self-imposed ban on earmarks kicked in, several Republicans had spending items of their own. McConnell's requests included a $1.5 million wastewater project. Senate Republicans, in the awkward position of fighting their own pork, forced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to scuttle the massive bill in favor of a continuing resolution that funds the government until March. But the attempt to pass the bloated bill a mere six weeks after the election shows the power of pork.

"Earmarks," said Coburn, "are like a bad dream that keeps coming back."

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