Continued from page 1

Mr. Walsh defends the process, saying it’s generally not waste: “In fact it’s really the opposite. These funds are focused, they’re targeted, they’re usually effective. I just happen to think they’re the most effective spending the federal government does.”

Until the middle of past decade, the word “earmark” was the kind of Washington-speak that would have produced glazed eyes among voters, and reporters used pejorative synonyms such as “pork” to convey the concept.

Now, though, earmarks are well known, the most prolific practitioners are known as “earmarxists,” and polls show the issue resonates among voters.

With House Republicans already ensuring that no spending bill would pass Congress with earmarks, and President Obama’s veto threat backing that up, Mr. Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said “the handwriting is clearly on the wall.”

“Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law,” he said last week, announcing at least a one-year pause.

That announcement was the culmination of years of work for lawmakers such as Mr. Coburn, and Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans. They all swore off pork requests and would regularly take to the chamber floor to try to strike the worst projects their colleagues requested.

In 2009, Mr. Flake went to the floor with 48 amendments to kill projects, and lost every single one.

As for what the future holds, nobody is willing to bet that Congress is done directing spending. Mr. Inouye said that after a year of no earmarks, he expects lawmakers will be ready to reconsider.

Darmark opponents said they saw some ominous signs in the lawmakers who Senate Republicans voted to give seats on the Appropriations Committee last month — including a number of folks who have supported earmarking in the past.

Among them were the two freshmen most reluctant to embrace an earmark ban in last year’s campaign: Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri.

“I’ll be interested to see if eliminating any congressional direction of spending lowers the spending level. If it does, I’ll applaud it, and if it doesn’t, I won’t,” Mr. Blunt said at a recent forum sponsored by Politico before Mr. Inouye’s ban.

Mr. Hoeven said he had been unsure how he would handle the issue. His spokesman said the senator supports a reform of the process, but that the bigger focus should be on broad spending reductions to get the budget in order.

Mr. Walsh, now a Washington lobbyist, last year worked with good-government groups to come up with a new set of rules for earmarks, including prohibiting most campaign contributors from getting earmarks, creating a database of all requests and randomly auditing earmarks.

“Everybody liked it, but it was prior to the election and the wind was blowing so hard against earmarks and we made no headway,” he said. “But I think within those principles is a workable approach to this.”

Mr. Ellis, whose group worked with Mr. Walsh, said he expects some in Congress to try to re-establish some form of earmarking. But he said this year without earmarks could set an example.

Story Continues →