- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009

Pork is back on the menu and the appetite is growing on Capitol Hill, where the number of lawmakers voluntarily swearing off earmarks for pet projects has fallen by nearly half compared with last year.

Just 17 of the 41 House members who promised not to request earmarks last year have made the same pledge this year, according to a survey of all congressional offices by the fiscal conservative action group Club for Growth. The holdouts include some top Republican leaders and all five House Democrats who had forsworn earmarks last year.

Just as telling, only six new lawmakers out of 63 that took office this year have said they will forgo earmarks, despite many of those freshmen having run on promises of restoring fiscal responsibility.

Despite expressing disgust for earmarks and pledging not to request them last year, Rep. Jackie Speier, California Democrat, is going her own direction this year.

“She has formed a Citizens Oversight Panel made up of people from across the 12th District and representing different political views to review appropriations requests in public forums and pass their recommendations on to her,” said her spokesman, Mike Larsen. “It is her hope to expand this process to all congressional districts to provide accountability to the appropriations process.”

Other House members said they’re not sure whether they’ll sign again this year.

“It’s still under discussion,” said Anne Lupardus, spokeswoman for Rep. Ron Kind, Wisconsin Democrat.

Andrew Roth, government affairs director for the Club for Growth, compiled the club’s survey of who’s sworn off earmarks by soliciting each congressional office. He also scours reports to see whether members of Congress have issued press releases or told local reporters they have sworn off earmarks.

Mr. Roth said that while this year’s list is smaller than 2008, it’s still better than a few years ago when “you could count all the anti-earmarkers on one hand.”

“I expect more members to join the list once the budget becomes a central focus of Congress, because then the debate about earmarks will heat up again and there will be a political motive to get on this list,” he said.

Earmarks are directions that members of Congress insert into bills or reports insisting that taxpayer money be used for pet projects in their home districts or states. In recent years, they have become contentious as their number and dollar amount have ballooned.

Backers say they constitute a small share of total federal spending, and say lawmakers know how to spend money better than unelected bureaucrats. But opponents say earmarks are part of a problem of overspending, and point to several members of Congress who have ended up in jail for accepting bribes in exchange for doing legislative favors.

There are likely to be thousands of earmarks tucked inside of the next spending bill Congress takes up - a massive catchall measure to fund the government for the rest of fiscal 2009. Congress adjourned last year having only passed annual appropriations for defense, homeland security and veterans, and leaving all the rest of the regular federal budget funded at 2008 levels.

Still, earmark opponents gained ground in recent years - so much so that first President George W. Bush and now President Obama set goals for capping the number of earmarks that lawmakers pass.

Lawmakers have made efforts to increase transparency, but the congressional appetite for earmarks remains in both parties, and that has hamstrung Republicans’ efforts to turn the issue into a political winner.

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