It may have looked like boom times for earmarkers in 2006, when they carved out a record $29 billion in projects — but little did lawmakers realize that a perfect storm of events the year before had set the clock ticking on pork.
What one anti-earmark operative called the "perfect storm" of runaway spending, lawmaker malfeasance and high-profile bad spending in 2005 set the stage for the slow decline of earmarking, culminating in this year's moratorium on the practice.
"2005 was a major tipping point in the effort. Maybe we were still sledding uphill, but the hill got a little less steep. And it also showed there was political and public relations power in going against earmarks," said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a chief earmark opposition group.
Glenn Reynolds, a law professor who in 2005 co-founded Porkbusters that helped harness the Internet to bring bipartisan pressure to bear on earmarkers, said Hurricane Katrina's devastation, and Congress' inclination to tack $100 billion in Gulf Coast recovery spending onto the deficit rather than find cuts elsewhere, set the stage.
Others point to the notoriety of the Bridge to Nowhere, the tens of millions of dollars that were slated to go to a bridge project in Alaska to connect a town of about 8,000 people to an island of 50 — despite the island already having regular ferry service.
Then, in late 2005, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, California Republican, resigned and pleaded guilty to taking bribes in exchange for steering business to supporters' companies, and early in 2006, top lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.
Later that year, Democrats would sweep into control of both the House and Senate, running in part against a "culture of corruption" they said the GOP had overseen.
Earmarking wasn't over, but it was about to fundamentally change as Democrats saw through a series of transparency reforms and earmark limits that gave an unprecedented look at who was making requests and who was winning projects.
The number and dollar amount of projects began to slide, but lawmakers continued to jealously guard the practice.
The first major crack in the unified earmarking front came at the House Republicans' annual retreat in 2008 when, led by then-GOP leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, Republicans decided they would give up all earmarks if Democrats did.
Democrats, who said their own transparency advances were sufficient, didn't bite. But two years later, House Republicans went ahead and imposed the ban unilaterally, forcing every single lawmaker in both the House and Senate to face a decision.
Along the way, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, won his party's 2008 presidential nomination and brought the issue to voters in each of his presidential debates with then-candidate Sen. Barack Obama. And Mr. Obama and his chief primary opponent, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, both voted for an earmark moratorium in the Senate in early 2008.
Mr. Obama's own transformation on the issue presaged the broader change in Congress. When he joined the Senate in 2005, he earmarked extensively, but by 2007, he had embraced transparency, and by 2008, was swearing off earmarks altogether, at least for himself.
Still, in those debates with Mr. McCain, he minimized the importance of earmarks, and repeatedly scolded lawmakers for sending him pork-laden bills, but signed them nonetheless.
Fast forward to last month, though, when Mr. Obama used his State of the Union address to draw an absolute line: "Both parties in Congress should know this: If a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it."
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Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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