Rep. Jeff Flake went to the floor of the U.S. House 48 times last year to offer amendments to strip pork-barrel spending projects from the annual spending bills. And 48 times, he walked away having suffered a stinging defeat.
All told, Mr. Flake and other pork busters — Sens. Tom Coburn and John McCain, and Rep. Jeb Hensarling — failed to win a single anti-earmark vote on the House and Senate floors for the fiscal 2010 spending bills.
But Democrats, who control the House and Senate, did make major advances in opening the process, allowing the public unprecedented access to lawmakers’ requests, which led to a new degree of scrutiny. Democrats also say they met their stated goal of keeping earmark projects to less than 1 percent of discretionary spending.
Those are two sides of the complex debate over earmarks: They’re more transparent but just as tough to vote down.
Earmarks are the pet projects members of Congress slip into spending bills that have become a symbol of how Washington works and of its worst excesses. Former members of Congress, such as Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, are in prison for bribery stemming from earmark abuses.
Earmarking ballooned when Republicans controlled Congress, reaching a high point of nearly $19 billion in fiscal 2005, according to government figures. Watchdog groups, which use different definitions to identify earmarks, say the actual tally was billions of dollars higher.
When Democrats took control of Congress, they vowed to cut the dollar amount. Early last year, the leaders of the appropriations committees announced they would cap earmarks at 1 percent of discretionary spending and require members of Congress to post all of their requests online so the public could see what they were submitting.
Mr. Flake said the new disclosure rules have been a help, even though his goal remains elusive.
“It’s given the public and in general, and also investigators, a road map to look at. We wouldn’t have the investigations going on unless we had this kind of transparency,” the Arizona Republican said. “But in terms of shaming members in cutting back on earmarks, I’ve been disappointed because it really hasn’t changed the game very much. … We’re a very tough bunch to shame.”
Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, which fights for openness in government operations, said the new rules are “a huge advance” but that “the execution of it was just horrendous.”
The rules didn’t specify how the requests were to be released. Some lawmakers buried their requests several levels down on their Web sites, while others posted unsearchable documents that made it difficult to systematically examine what they were requesting.
The Senate Appropriations Committee tried to make the process easy, posting a link from its main Web page to every lawmaker’s office.
“If you want to know what request has been made by a particular senator, it’s right there. If you want to follow up with a particular senator, you can do that,” said Rob Blumenthal, spokesman for the Senate Appropriations Committee and its chairman, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat.
Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers have reduced the dollar amount of earmarks by 50 percent from its high point, but “what you’re seeing is a fundamental belief by many in Congress that earmarks are a way we do business here.”
Earmarks are included in the bills or, more often, in accompanying reports as they make their way from committee to the full chamber floors. Democrats have promised that lawmakers will have a chance to challenge earmarks on the floor.
Mr. Flake, the champion challenger, offered so many amendments to one bill that Democrats forced him to combine 553 amendments, comprising 1,102 earmarks, into a single package that faced an up-or-down vote. It was defeated on a bipartisan 342-82 vote.
Among his other individual challenges was an amendment to strike $325,000 for the Institute for Seafood Studies in Thibodaux, La., which was defeated by a vote of 303-124, and an amendment to eliminate $500,000 in funding for Millennium Technology Park in New Castle, Pa., which was defeated by a 329-105 vote.
In the Senate, Mr. Coburn and Mr. McCain also were unsuccessful. Mr. McCain filed hundreds of amendments and sought floor votes on about 20 of those amendments.
He laughed when asked whether the new rules were helping cut abuses.
Mr. Coburn, who did succeed in striking an earmark from the stimulus bill last year, said more reforms will come eventually.
“We’re taking this to the level of the American people that the problem is in the Congress, and you need to change the people that are here,” he said. “We’re going to eventually win the earmark battle.”
Mr. Coburn said that next step could be made if President Obama vetoes a spending bill because of earmarks.
Still, all sides agreed that the new rules do allow for more scrutiny than ever. Reporters have been able to examine earmarks from start to finish, and analysts and the public have been able to stack up members’ requests against one another to see who’s requesting which types of projects.
Mr. Allison said since this is the first year, the data also provide a base line to judge future requests.