Capitol Hill lawmakers still brag about the federal dollars and projects they bring home. But in an age of taxpayer-financed bailouts and massive budget deficits, members are increasingly on the defensive about pork-barrel spending.
Pet projects are targets for charges of government waste during tough economic times, and earmarks stuffed into appropriations bills smack of Washington backroom dealing.
Republicans, laboring to re-establish the party’s reputation for fiscal restraint, are bearing the brunt of the criticism and being hit from all sides.
Rep. Mary Fallin, a Republican contender in the 2010 Oklahoma governor’s race, was criticized last week by her primary rival for not “practicing what she preaches” when it comes to pork spending.
“She is just as guilty on the runaway federal spending that she rails against,” said state Sen. Randy Brogdon, who pointed out that Mrs. Fallin requested more than $243 million in pet projects for the upcoming fiscal year.
Lawmakers rarely acquire all the federal funding they request for the projects, but all of the requests are posted on their office Web pages under new earmark disclosure rules.
Mrs. Fallin secured 13 projects worth $4.8 million in the 2009 appropriations bills, according to an earmark tally by Citizens Against Government Waste.
The nonprofit watchdog group’s annual “Pig Book,” published last week, spawned scores of news reports about pet projects sponsored by members of both parties and supplied fodder for campaign attacks.
Mrs. Fallin, who voted against every Democratic spending bill this year, said her earmark requests, including for defense projects and law enforcement programs, were legitimate. She said the earmark system needs reform but she will keep requesting projects until Congress adopts a better process.
“I want to make sure the taxpayer dollars we send to Washington come back to Oklahoma,” Mrs. Fallin said. “There will be people who will try to score political points until we get that system developed.”
Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt also are trading shots about pork spending as they face off in the Republican primary race in Kansas for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican.
“The congressman has heard from across the state that people want real earmark reform,” Moran campaign spokesman Travis Murphy said. “We expect the issue of reform that prevents situations like what we have seen with PMA and other firms to be among the many issues debated in this campaign.”
The PMA Group is a lobbying firm that closed this year after the FBI raided its office in a corruption probe of campaign contributions and spending earmarks. According to the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics, PMA donated about $27,000 to Mr. Tiahrt and $1,500 to Mr. Moran.
Mr. Moran has given the money to charity, but Mr. Tiahrt has not.
Tiahrt campaign manager Robert Noland said the candidate supports an “across-the-board” overhaul of the earmark system but also backs projects that benefit Kansas, including job-creation programs and the construction of flood-control levees.
“It is unfortunate that Congressman Moran plays politics by criticizing earmarks one moment but then gets caught by having one of his own earmarks highlighted in the … 2009 ‘Pig Book,’ ” Mr. Noland said.
The book listed a $2.1 million project for trade centers in six states sponsored by a bipartisan group of 10 lawmakers that included Mr. Moran.
Democrats are seizing on the same arguments to counter Republicans who say President Obama and the Democrat-led Congress are on a spending spree that threatens to bankrupt the country.
“We’ve been hitting [Republicans] for their hypocrisy on projects - specifically, either saying they won’t request them and then they did or voting against the economic recovery bill and then heralding the projects at home,” said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Republicans are highlighting Democrats’ pork spending to reinforce their message.
The National Republican Congressional Committee announced an offensive Friday targeting 43 vulnerable House Democrats with robocalls and TV and radio ads that highlight the $1.2 trillion in new spending authorized so far this year.
“Democrats have failed to be honest about their willingness to support a pork-filled stimulus package and a budget that taxes, spends and borrows in excess at the expense of their constituents,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said.