Key congressional Republicans yesterday harshly criticized their colleagues for pork-barrel requests, calling the practice a “gateway drug” to a spending addiction.
Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake said lobbying scandals involving former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, and Jack Abramoff prove that it’s time to revamp the system, which makes it too easy for legislators to reroute money to their home districts.
“Is the system so broken, is there so little oversight … that one member, one lobbyist can divert hundreds of millions of dollars, of taxpayer dollars that are supposed to be for the men and women in the military, to a private enterprise?” asked Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican.
“Everybody was so alarmed with what Congressman Cunningham did — I think we should be alarmed that he was able to.”
The testimony before a Senate subcommittee came as House lawmakers scrambled to submit their earmark requests, so-called pork, by yesterday’s deadline and as the Senate agreed to raise the national debt ceiling to nearly $9 trillion.
Mr. Flake, also an Arizona Republican, said some lobbyists filled out the earmark request forms for him, asking that he sign and submit them.
“When that is what the process has become, we have a problem — a huge problem,” said Mr. Flake, one of few lawmakers who does not submit pork-spending requests.
Mr. McCain and Mr. Flake are proposing that earmarks be placed in the text of legislation with ample time for review, rather than in nonamendable conference reports dropped at the last minute.
The reform effort, which faces an uncertain future in the House, does not prevent members from seeking earmarks but would allow any single proposal to be challenged and debated.
The two lawmakers testified yesterday before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on federal financial management, government information and international security.
Mr. Flake said the rise in earmarks — from 3,000 in 1996 to almost 16,000 last year — has exploded under the Republican majority and is a “far cry” from the ideals of the “Contract with America.”
Cunningham was sentenced to eight years, four months in prison — the longest term given to a congressman in decades — for accepting bribes from defense contractors. Abramoff pleaded guilty to bribing officials earlier this year.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, is chairman of the subcommittee and a supporter of earmark reform. He said Congress has “failed miserably” in its oversight.
Many Democrats support adding transparency to the process, said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“There are many earmarks that are very worthy — all of mine, as a matter of fact,” the California Democrat said, laughing. “It’s the special-interest earmarks that are the ones that go in there in the dark of night that they don’t want anybody to see.”