- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that earmarks should be put back on the table as a tool for Congress, becoming the latest voice in a growing chorus to return to the days when pork-barrel spending dominated the annual appropriations process.

“I have been a fan of earmarks since I got here the first day,” Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, told reporters. “Keep in mind, that’s what the country has done for more than 200 years, except for the brief period of time in recent years that we haven’t done these.”

He and other supporters said earmarks were part of the founders’ vision of government and that they served to help get bills passed, making them an attractive antidote to the gridlock in Congress over the past four years.

The nostalgia has earmark opponents worried.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and the top waste-watcher in Congress, circulated a letter last week with Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, asking colleagues to pledge to stand by the earmark ban.

“We recognize there are a wide range of views on this subject in our caucuses but we believe it is important to reaffirm our support for this policy,” the letter said. “Congress has ample flexibility to exercise its power of the purse and represent the interests of our constituents without using earmarks.”

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As of Tuesday, only nine other senators had signed the letter.

Earmarks were legislative add-ons to direct money to special projects in lawmakers’ home states. These projects, which included parking garages, bike trails and contracts for defense contractors, often were listed in a report with scant review.

At their height, when Republicans controlled Congress in 2005 and 2006, earmarks totaled more than $30 billion, according to some calculations.

Democrats imposed transparency requirements and restrictions when they took control of Congress in 2007. The practice ended altogether when Republicans retook control of the House in 2011 and John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, was elected as speaker.

Senate Democrats were forced to follow Mr. Boehner’s moratorium.

Restoration of earmarks is unlikely in the near term, particularly as long as Mr. Boehner remains speaker.

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Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who would be in line to lead the Senate if Republicans win control of the chamber in November, is opposed to restoring earmarks, a spokesman said. Asked whether Mr. McConnell agreed with Mr. Reid that it was time to rethink the ban, his spokesman flatly said, “No.”

The public began to sour on earmarks after mammoth boondoggles such as the “bridge to nowhere,” which would have sent more than $300 million in taxpayers’ money to build a bridge to an Alaska island so residents could get to an airport without having to use a ferry service. The project ultimately was canceled, but it became a symbol of runaway pork-barrel spending.

Now, nearly four years into the moratorium, a backlash is developing.

National Journal reported that some Republicans are campaigning in favor of pork in Mississippi. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and Mr. Reid’s deputy, has lobbied the Obama administration to reverse its opposition.

President Obama helped end earmarks in his first term, piggybacking on House Republicans’ moratorium by saying he would veto any bill that included pork projects.

Mr. Reid responded by saying, “I disagree, underline, underscore, big exclamation marks, with Obama on earmarks. He’s wrong.”

Earmark supporters said it could be difficult to get a transportation bill passed without earmarks. In the past, congressional leaders offered lawmakers pots of money for projects in their home states in exchange for votes on broad bills.

Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said using pork for deal-making led to bad lawmaking.

“These bills end up being more expensive because members will get a few million in earmarks and then vote for hundreds of billions in spending, in exchange for millions in pork,” he said.

Citizens Against Government Waste, which has fought earmarks for years, will release Wednesday the 2014 installment of its “Pig Book,” which details pork-barrel spending.

The organization’s definition of pork is different from what Congress uses, so it still finds examples. Mr. Schatz did say the earmark ban has cut the number and dollar amounts of earmarks, saving taxpayers money.

Mr. Reid said he would be prepared to enhance transparency and disclosure but he believes members of Congress make better spending decisions than the executive branch.

“It is wrong to have bureaucrats downtown make decisions in Nevada that I can make better than they can make,” he said. “I don’t run away at all. This is something that’s been going on for centuries in our country. And it has worked quite well.”

Mr. Schatz countered that even when earmarking was at its height, it accounted for a little more than 1 percent of the federal budget, which means the administration is still making about 99 percent of all spending decisions.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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