- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2012

When Rep. Mike Rogers publicly suggested last week that Congress reconsider its ban on pork-barrel spending, the Alabama Republican probably didn’t know what he was stepping into.

But in the ensuing days, Mr. Rogers and his allies have gone silent, taxpayer watchdog groups have prepared for war, and House Speaker John A. Boehner — who Mr. Rogers said was considering a task force to look at earmarks — has flatly denied that’s in the offing.

“There is no earmark committee being formed,” Mr. Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, said Monday.

After President Obama threatened to start vetoing bills with earmarks, House Republicans last year imposed a temporary ban and Senate Democrats followed suit.

But, as leaders have struggled to forge unity among their own party members this year, some lawmakers have pointed to the lack of earmarks, saying the ability to dole them out helped keep the rank-and-file from straying too far from party positions.

Mr. Rogers, a five-term congressman who represents eastern Alabama, raised the possibility of a return to earmarks last month in a closed-door meeting with fellow House Republicans.

“There was a lot of applause when I made my comments. I had a few freshmen boo me, but that’s OK. By and large, it was very well embraced,” he told Reuters news service, which first reported on his remarks last week.

Since then, Mr. Rogers has clammed up.

L. Shea Snider, Mr. Rogers‘ spokeswoman, said Monday that she had no further comment.

Tom Schatz, president of the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, said Mr. Rogers is trying to lay the groundwork for a return to earmarking after the elections in November.

“It’s not a surprise. He’s a longtime porker,” said Mr. Schatz, whose organization produces the annual Pig Book documenting those who obtain the most earmarks. He said the next version of the Pig Book, expected later this month, will show that while earmarking has gone underground, the ban has not ended the practice entirely.

The focus on earmarks has returned over the past month as Congress has debated a massive transportation bill, which funds the federal government’s roads- and transit-building program.

In 1987, President Reagan vetoed a highway bill because it included 152 earmarks. Congress voted to override his veto, and the spigot opened.

The last bill, signed by President Bush in 2005, contained more than 6,000 earmarks, and lawmakers said they were promised earmarks in exchange for their pledge of support for the bill.

This year’s version does not contain earmarks. Lawmakers and independent analysts have said that’s one reason Republican House leaders have had a tough time getting the bill passed.

Mr. Schatz, though, said the divide in the House runs deeper than largesse for back home, and that he doubts the dozens of freshman Republicans who were elected on anti-earmark pledges in 2010 will go back on them.

“The highway bill problem was more a problem of size and scope of expenditures than it was lack of earmarks,” he said. “I don’t think members who were concerned with size could have been bought off with earmarks.”

The Senate has passed its plan in a strong bipartisan vote. That bill also was free of earmarks.

But lawmakers clearly want to keep the option open.

The Senate in February defeated a proposal by a 59-40 vote that would have imposed a permanent ban on earmarks.

“The reality is that without congressional earmarks, we find ourselves at the mercy of the bureaucrats to ensure that our local needs are fulfilled,” Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, said during the floor debate on that amendment.

As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mr. Inouye imposed the Senate’s earmark ban last year and extended it through this year, but said he still defends Congress‘ power under the Constitution to direct money.

Earmarks never amounted to much more than 1 percent of federal spending, and Mr. Inouye said that eliminating them wouldn’t make a dent in the deficit. Opponents, though, said leaders used earmarks to entice rank-and-file members to support higher spending.

Earmarking exploded when Republicans controlled Congress, growing in both number and dollar amount, and leading to the criminal prosecution of Rep. Randall “Duke” Cunningham, a California Republican who was convicted of trading earmarks for bribes.

When Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, they imposed new rules and expanded transparency so earmark requests were made public and all earmarks granted were supposed to be listed in bills.