WASHINGTON-For the last five years, Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona has highlighted an "egregious earmark of the week." He likes to pick on these pork projects with a pun. Take, for example, his response to the $2 million directed to acquire the Ice Age Scenic Trail in Wisconsin: "This mammoth earmark is woolly uncalled for."
With House Republicans promising an earmark moratorium, Flake has retired his earmark pun routine. But he's going out with a bang, asking America to vote on the most egregious earmark. His top 10 list includes $940,000 for the Adler Planetarium's Space Exploration Center in Chicago: "Congress continues to Klingon to earmarks." And "this earmark really shucks" for $446,000 spent on oyster post-harvest treatment in Florida. And for $143,000 sent to New York's American Ballet Theatre: "Congress continues to spend way tutu much."
But lawmaker addiction to bringing home the federal bacon is no laughing matter: The more than 9,000 earmarks, or lawmaker-directed expenditures, approved last year came with a nearly $17 billion price tag. The practice has spread quickly: In 1991 there were just 546 earmark projects worth $3.2 billion.
What's worse, a recent study found that lawmakers actually requested (but did not get) 39,294 earmarks worth more than $130 billion for the current fiscal year. "Think about the time that's wasted in the Congress handling 39,000 earmarks when you could be expending that same effort asking, 'Is this program constitutional? Is this program effective?'" said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "We never look at any of that. We just see a problem and create another program."
Voters finally seemed to shout "enough" last November, and the "no more earmarks" bandwagon suddenly got more crowded. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, in a floor speech delivered just moments after the Senate began its first post-election session, announced that he would no longer indulge in the practice. "I don't apologize for them," McConnell said of the $468 million in earmarks he directed to Kentucky in the last three years. "But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and out-of control spending."
Soon after McConnell's change of heart, Senate Republicans in November approved a two-year moratorium on congressional pork starting this year. The overall Senate, however, failed to pass a binding three-year ban on earmarks by a 56 to 39 vote that included 8 Republicans voting to protect earmarks. Vowing that no earmark-laden bills will pass the House, Republicans, now in the majority, also embraced the earmark ban for the new 112th Congress.
"That's a new paradigm that the goal of the appropriators is to cut spending, not spend money," said Zach Wamp, a Republican from Tennessee who just finished serving 16 years in the House. "The establishment, the old bulls in the Congress, may have lost their luster and influence."
But some think that targeting earmarks is merely a symbolic distraction from larger spending issues: The total amount spent on earmarks represents less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget and about 1 percent of the deficit. "Sometimes there's too much focus on the earmarks," said Tad DeHaven of the Cato Institute, a libertarian group. "If we stop with the earmark battle and say, 'Mission accomplished,' then the victory will have been an illusion."
Others warn that giving up earmarks would threaten the constitutional balance of power-abdicating to unelected bureaucrats in executive branch agencies the ability to control where federal money goes. "It would be nothing short of criminal to go through all the trouble of electing great, new anti-establishment conservatives, only to be politically correct and have them cede to Obama their constitutional power of the purse," warned Republican earmark supporter Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.
But a Harvard Business School study published last summer showed that earmarks, no matter what kind, crowd out private investment. The researchers looked at states that received a flood of earmarks after a local lawmaker became chair of a committee. The study found that local businesses cut investments and curtailed employment as a result. Generally, when the spurt of federal spending slowed to a trickle after a state lost a lawmaker as a committee chair, private investments returned.
Coburn adds that earmarks create a dysfunctional culture of federal waste. Chasing money for pet projects in their districts, lawmakers are obsessed with local issues at the expense of national ones. Meanwhile lobbyists foster Washington's horse-trading mentality, giving lawmakers campaign cash in exchange for special projects. "Earmarks are the gateway drug to overspending," Coburn told me. "They are what grease the skids to get people to vote for a bill they otherwise wouldn't vote for because they have an earmark in the bill. It becomes coercive."
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."