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Earmarks end for one year, but perk still potent on Hill
Sweet deals become toxic
Question of the Day
Capitol Hill insiders say at least 75 percent of lawmakers privately still think earmarking is a correct and proper use of congressional authority. Yet last week, one of the Senate’s champion earmarkers, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, hammered home the nail that officially ended the practice — at least for the time being.
The swift fall of a long-treasured congressional prerogative is a lesson for other movements in how a position held by a minority in Washington can become the dominant policy, resulting from the relentless efforts of a few congressional opponents combined with good luck, bad fiscal policy, some criminal behavior and a public armed with the Internet.
But the path from the heady days of political pork — just five years ago — to this year’s congressional ban that is backed up by a presidential veto pledge, also shows just how toxic spending has become and how savvy tea-party-inspired voters have gotten at understanding the intricacies of the federal budget.
“The public suddenly noticed,” said Glenn Reynolds, a law professor and blogger who in 2005 helped start Porkbusters, a bipartisan blogger movement to highlight bum spending projects. “The old system was based on voter ignorance, and voters quit being ignorant. Once voters quit being ignorant, the politicians couldn’t get away with it anymore.”
Earmarks peaked in 2006. Citizens Against Government Waste says the marks at that time accounted for $29 billion, or slightly more than 1 percent of federal spending. By 2010, that figure had fallen to about one-half of 1 percent — significant money, though still low for the amount of attention it draws.
Now, with House Republican victories in 2010 and Mr. Inouye’s announcement last week, 2011 and 2012 spending bills promise to be the first earmark-free measures in decades.
The fall of earmarks is a dramatic story of deepening deficits, criminal behavior by lawmakers and a growing list of bum projects that couldn’t be ignored, starting with the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska in 2005.
Not resting on their success, earmark opponents have their eye on undoing some of the damage they ascribe to past earmarks.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, has introduced legislation with Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat, to rescind old unspent earmarks. The bill could recapture more than $500 million from projects at least 9 years old and where at least 90 percent of the money remains unspent.
Still, earmark opponents say they are on the lookout for the next version of earmarking and worry in particular that the ban could push earmarking underground, removing whatever transparency existed and relegating spending decisions to backrooms and private phone calls between top lawmakers and the administration.
Former Rep. James T. Walsh, a New York Republican who spent years on the Appropriations Committee before retiring in 2009, said that was just how it was done in the old days, when top Appropriations subcommittee chairmen would include money in a bill and then call and advise the department secretary on how to spend the money.
When Republicans took control of the chamber in 1995, he said, they spread the wealth, or “democratized the earmark process,” by making it available to everyone, Republican or Democrat, leader or rank-and-file member alike.
“Lots of press was generated, lots of ribbons were cut, and it drew the ire of some in the press and some in the legislature, because they didn’t do it, they thought it was wrong,” Mr. Walsh said. “And so over time it became referred to as earmarks and pork-barrel spending, and it’s become really the bogeyman of the Congress.”
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About the Author
Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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