Republicans are planning another yearlong campaign to shame Democrats for failing to kill the practice of earmarking money for pet projects.
But there are two big problems with the strategy, according to nonpartisan experts who track spending. Democrats last year actually approved fewer earmarks than Republicans did when they ran Congress.
And many Republicans remain very supportive of the controversial spending practice.
The numbers speak for themselves.
Congress did pass more than 11,000 earmarks last year at a cost north of $15 billion, according to data compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group.
Roughly 40 percent of that money was set aside for projects requested by Republicans, essentially the same amount that has gone to the minority party in most years.
Democrats claim the total number of earmarks is down 44 percent when compared with the Republican-controlled Congress in 2006.
That number is misleading, however, because it does not represent what was actually signed into law.
The actual reduction is much closer to 25 percent, says Steve Ellis of TCS.
There is no doubt Democrats fell short of their campaign promise to end the practice, but they can rightly claim some progress.
The Republican plan to slam the minority over wasteful spending is far from novel — it’s a trick often used by the party out of power.
But with many conservative activists still fuming at record spending under President Bush, Republicans are planning to make this a staple of their agenda for all of 2008.
Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), one of the new leaders to swear off earmarks consistently, is aggressively pushing the plan over the objection of many appropriators.
At the same time, Bush is threatening to target what he calls wasteful spending in his final year.
He has asked Budget Director Jim Nussle to review options for dealing with earmarks, and members from both sides of the aisle are waiting nervously to see if he’ll follow through on his cost-cutting threat.
But the fight is likely to be more complicated since “earmarking is a bipartisan affliction,” with Democrats and Republicans lining up “side by side at the trough,” said Ellis.
Comptroller General David M. Walker, who heads the Government Accountability Office, explained the extent of the affliction.
He calls earmarks “tainted,” saying they “corrupt the process.”
Pentagon officials told him, he said, they estimated that they received more than $20 billion in funding for projects that they had not asked for or did not need.
While Democrats in the House cut earmarks by a significant measure, once the spending bills were reconciled with the Senate, much of the targeted spending was restored.
That left some lawmakers committed to cutting spending feeling cheated.
“What they said they did, they didn’t do. It’s a sham. There has been no reform to earmarks in the Senate,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a fierce budget hawk.
And attempts by Bush and his conservative allies to turn them into a partisan issue will likely be muted by their own party’s history on the matter and their continued use of them.
“Republicans promised not to engage in that type of conduct and then did engage in it,” said Rep. John B. Shadegg (R-Ariz.), who came in with the class of 1994 with the agenda of cleaning up government waste.
In fact, Shadegg said, the so-called Republican revolution actually made things worse, not better.
Before then, earmarks had largely been the province of appropriators, the perk of pork for favored members.
But then House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) made earmarks a tool of the leadership, doled out to colleagues facing tough races and to favored allies.
The number of earmarks jumped from 3,000 in 1995 to 15,000 in 2005.
Earmarks have run the gamut, from the infamous “Bridge to Nowhre” in Alaska to money for local fire departments, community centers and cancer research. And some have surfaced as controversial.
Over the past four years, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) has secured $2.75 million to revitalize Washington’s Barracks Row neighborhood, where his family owns a home.
(Lewis says the restoration will “benefit tens of thousands of federal workers, tourists and the diverse neighborhoods around Capitol Hill.”)
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) sparked an investigation by earmarking $10 million to extend Coconut Road in Florida, where one of Young’s donors has property.
(Young’s office says the road expansion was for a hurricane evacuation route.)
And there was the brouhaha over $3 million snared by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) for the James E. Clyburn Golf Center in Columbia, S.C.
(Clyburn says the program has been mischaracterized, that the funds were to promote the First Tee program to teach golf to young people at military bases.)
Earmarks are more visible than ever this year, the result of new rules introduced by the Democrats to open up the process.
The House requires lawmakers to claim their earmarks, explain what the money is for, how much is being allotted and name the company, nongovernmental organization or public agency that will benefit from the federal funds.
The Senate reforms require only that a member claim an earmark and write a letter certifying that he or she has no financial conflict of interest with the program.
Despite attempts to turn earmarked spending into a political weapon, members aren’t expected to shun it.
Incumbents routinely use earmarks to pocket some campaign bragging points, often holding local news conferences to announce the secured funding for a favored project in their district.
But some lobbyists welcome the changes.
The new rules “get some of the junk out of the system. They increase accountability,” said Gerald Warburg, executive vice president of Cassidy & Associates and one of the deans of the appropriations game.
Members are more sensitive to the appearance of impropriety now, he said. Congressional leaders often engaged in so-called log-rolling, doling out earmarks as rewards to help get their bills passed.
“There was a lot of that going on two or three years ago, and there’s a lot less of that now,” he said.