Capitol Hill insiders say at least 75 percent of lawmakers privately still think earmarking is a correct and proper use of congressional authority. Yet last week, one of the Senate’s champion earmarkers, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, hammered home the nail that officially ended the practice — at least for the time being.
The swift fall of a long-treasured congressional prerogative is a lesson for other movements in how a position held by a minority in Washington can become the dominant policy, resulting from the relentless efforts of a few congressional opponents combined with good luck, bad fiscal policy, some criminal behavior and a public armed with the Internet.
But the path from the heady days of political pork — just five years ago — to this year’s congressional ban that is backed up by a presidential veto pledge, also shows just how toxic spending has become and how savvy tea-party-inspired voters have gotten at understanding the intricacies of the federal budget.
“The public suddenly noticed,” said Glenn Reynolds, a law professor and blogger who in 2005 helped start Porkbusters, a bipartisan blogger movement to highlight bum spending projects. “The old system was based on voter ignorance, and voters quit being ignorant. Once voters quit being ignorant, the politicians couldn’t get away with it anymore.”
Earmarks peaked in 2006. Citizens Against Government Waste says the marks at that time accounted for $29 billion, or slightly more than 1 percent of federal spending. By 2010, that figure had fallen to about one-half of 1 percent — significant money, though still low for the amount of attention it draws.
Now, with House Republican victories in 2010 and Mr. Inouye’s announcement last week, 2011 and 2012 spending bills promise to be the first earmark-free measures in decades.
The fall of earmarks is a dramatic story of deepening deficits, criminal behavior by lawmakers and a growing list of bum projects that couldn’t be ignored, starting with the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska in 2005.
Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, calls that year the “perfect storm” of events that eventually culminated in this year’s moratorium.
Not resting on their success, earmark opponents have their eye on undoing some of the damage they ascribe to past earmarks.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, has introduced legislation with Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat, to rescind old unspent earmarks. The bill could recapture more than $500 million from projects at least 9 years old and where at least 90 percent of the money remains unspent.
“As Congress shifts its focus from earmarking to deficit reduction, rescinding funds for orphaned earmarks is an obvious step toward fiscal sanity,” Mr. Coburn said.
Still, earmark opponents say they are on the lookout for the next version of earmarking and worry in particular that the ban could push earmarking underground, removing whatever transparency existed and relegating spending decisions to backrooms and private phone calls between top lawmakers and the administration.
Former Rep. James T. Walsh, a New York Republican who spent years on the Appropriations Committee before retiring in 2009, said that was just how it was done in the old days, when top Appropriations subcommittee chairmen would include money in a bill and then call and advise the department secretary on how to spend the money.
When Republicans took control of the chamber in 1995, he said, they spread the wealth, or “democratized the earmark process,” by making it available to everyone, Republican or Democrat, leader or rank-and-file member alike.
“Lots of press was generated, lots of ribbons were cut, and it drew the ire of some in the press and some in the legislature, because they didn’t do it, they thought it was wrong,” Mr. Walsh said. “And so over time it became referred to as earmarks and pork-barrel spending, and it’s become really the bogeyman of the Congress.”
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.
“The world is still turning on its axis. Lawmakers still get elected and re-election, campaign contributions continue to flow. I think the more people realize there is a life after earmarks, the better off we are,” he said.