- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2009

Capitol Hill’s top Democrats are making a full-throated effort to rebrand earmarks as good government, not a dirty word synonymous with pork-barrel hijinks.

With President Obama’s vow to clamp down on earmarks putting pressure on lawmakers to change their ways, congressional leaders have set out to educate voters about why they think Congress should direct dollars to districts or states for specific pet projects.

“That there is something inherently evil, wicked or criminal or wrong with [earmarks], it’s just not the case,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, noting that he earmarked millions of dollars in the pending omnibus spending bill for what he said were worthy projects in his home state.

Mr. Durbin said lawmakers’ pet projects are listed in the bill and exposed to public scrutiny, and that members of Congress know how to best spend taxpayer dollars in their districts and states.

“Otherwise, what happens? We give the money to the agency downtown and they decide where to spend it,” Mr. Durbin said on the Senate floor. “It isn’t as if the money won’t be spent. Oh, it will be spent. But it may not be spent as effectively or for projects that are as valuable.”

The refrain has been the same from other top Democrats, whether from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada or House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland. Besides touting the merits of earmarks, these Democrats balked at Mr. Obama’s announcement last week of a plan to reel in pork-barrel spending.

Both Mr. Reid and Mr. Hoyer made clear that they thought it was out of Mr. Obama’s constitutional jurisdiction.

But the “power of the purse” argument does not belong only to congressional Democrats.

When Republicans ran both chambers, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and his colleagues argued just as staunchly that they had both a constitutional right to direct spending and the knowledge of which projects in their districts and states are most worthy.

But earmarks “don’t go to the most critical and most important projects across the country” because they bypass the committee process and don’t compete for funds with other priorities, said Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

If the projects were in any way awarded on merit, then the lion’s share of pork wouldn’t be going to the most powerful and senior members of Congress, Mr. Ellis said.

“Earmarks are the grease of the pay-to-play system where the powerful and the politically connected win out,” he said.

Congressional Republicans, determined to revive their image as the party of fiscal restraint, helped push the earmark issue to the fore as they hammered a $410 billion catchall spending bill for 2009 that has about $12.8 billion worth of earmarks. However, about 40 percent of the earmarks in the omnibus bill were requested by Republicans.

The roughly 9,000 pet projects in the spending package, known as an omnibus bill, include $951,500 for a “sustainable Las Vegas” study, $238,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Honolulu, $190,000 for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., and $24,000 for a program in Pennsylvania to promote sexual abstinence.

Debate over earmarks reinforces Republicans’ criticism that the bill is more of Democrats’ “borrow-and-spend” governing. They say the federal spending spree - a $700 billion Wall Street bailout, a $787 billion economic stimulus and a $410 billion omnibus, all on top of Mr. Obama’s proposed $3.55 trillion budget for fiscal 2010 - is bankrupting the country.

The fight will continue Monday as Senate Democratic leaders fend off cuts to earmarks or other moves to reduce the bill’s price tag, which would boost spending 8 percent over 2008 levels - more than twice the rate of inflation.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has sworn off sponsoring earmarks, said they are “evil” because they have perverted the appropriations process.

He said earmarks were rare 25 years ago, but now lawmakers dole out billions of dollars each year at whim.

“The evil grew and grew, like any other evil,” Mr. McCain said. “While the American people are suffering under the worst recession since the Great Depression, we here in Congress not only are doing business as usual, we are wasting the taxpayers’ money at an incredible rate.”

Still, it is Mr. Obama’s stated commitment to earmark reform that put Capitol Hill Democrats on guard.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, last week defended earmarks as an “appropriate function” of Congress, even as she pledged to work with the White House to cut the number and increase transparency - but only after passage of the omnibus bill.

“The idea is lower number, more transparency, total accountability,” Mrs. Pelosi said.

Democrats have made strides in reducing the number of earmarks and opening the process, including enacting rules mandating that each spending bill include a list of all earmarks and who sponsored them.

The number and value of earmarks in spending bills has dropped from the high point of about 10,000 earmarks worth $29 billion in the 2006 appropriation bills, according to data complied by the anti-pork crusaders Citizens Against Government Waste.

Democratic leaders argue that earmarks account for about 1 percent of spending in the omnibus. They say Republicans, who presided over a massive expansion in pork spending while they were in the majority party, are feigning outrage now to obstruct Mr. Obama’s agenda and score points with conservative voters.

“When I hear people come to the floor saying this is an outrage that all of these earmarks are in the bill, I think to myself, there’s nothing outrageous about this,” Mr. Durbin said. “We’ve bragged about it. We’ve had press conferences about it. The people of our city think it is money well spent.”

Mr. Durbin said Democrats are working to make the process more transparent and to reduce the number of earmarks. He goes a step further by posting on his office Web site a list of all projects he requests. The list currently has 177 items, including $3 million for a railroad overpass in Morrison, Ill., $300,000 for a reconnaissance study of Raccoon Lake in Centralia, Ill., and $500,000 to buy a digital mammography machine for Sinai Health System in Chicago.

“There is money in [the omnibus] as well going to hospitals to buy critical equipment. It’s all listed, every single hospital, every single dollar,” he said. “I try to help them out if I can. I think that is part of my job.”