Former Sen. Tom Coburn can still tick off a rogue’s gallery of the dumbest earmarks he saw.
Of course there’s the Bridge to Nowhere, the nearly half-billion-dollar link to an Alaskan island with a population of 50. But there’s also the Seattle sculpture garden or, one of his favorites, the goose poop earmark of one senator who asked federal taxpayers to pick up the tab for controlling the troublesome birds so they no longer soiled his home city’s parks in New York.
This makes it all the more stunning to Mr. Coburn that six years after Congress finally shut off the earmark factory, many members are clamoring to bring them back.
Senate Republicans are poised to restore earmarks unless opponents muster the votes to stop them in a secret ballot Tuesday. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, is under severe pressure from his members and has agreed to study the issue.
“Very tone-deaf,” Mr. Coburn told The Washington Times. “I’d love to know who the smart guys are in the Republican conference who want to do this.”
Earmarks are the spending items that lawmakers tuck into bills and reports that direct money for roads, parking garages, city parks, dams and military projects in their home districts.
Critics call it pork, but fans say earmarking is the way the country’s founders intended it: Congress has the power of the purse and is charged with directing federal money.
Lawmakers say earmarks are more in tune with the needs of their constituents than bureaucrats at federal agencies, so it makes sense that they would have a say in what projects should be prioritized.
“Why should we as members of Congress give authority to the White House? That is what has happened, and it brought Congress to a standstill. Bring back earmarks,” former Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democrats’ longtime floor leader, pleaded with colleagues in his farewell address last month.
At their height, earmarks amounted to about 1 percent of total government spending, but they accounted for a lot of the grief that lawmakers faced over spending decisions.
Perhaps no piece of legislation was more poisonous for earmarks than the massive 2005 highway bill, coming in at nearly $300 billion, and piled full of pork.
Mr. Coburn said Republican leaders offered lawmakers the chance to pick out their own projects in the bill, in exchange for agreeing to vote for the final package. The bill cleared easily, on a 91-4 vote in the Senate and a 412-8 vote in the House.
But the bad press quickly mounted. One lawmaker from California was accused of earmarking a street extension and highway interchanges that benefited a business partner. Another lawmaker had to fend off erroneous press reports that he was under FBI investigation after he requested money for an interchange that the Los Angeles Times said helped boost the value of a property he owned.
Mr. Coburn, meanwhile, demanded an investigation into a $10 million earmark that appeared in the bill to study the expansion of a highway in Florida — even though local officials said they never asked for it. Press reports fingered Rep. Don Young, the Alaska Republican who as chairman of the Transportation Committee wrote the 2005 bill, and who, according to McClatchy news service, took campaign donations from a local developer who stood to benefit.
The 2005 bill also spawned the Bridge to Nowhere, a $450 million span meant to replace the ferry system between Ketchikan, a town of about 9,000, and Gravina Island, with a population of 50 and the location of Ketchikan International Airport. Mr. Young was a key backer of that project.
Things got worse later in 2005 when Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a California Republican and war hero, was convicted of taking more than $2 million in bribes in exchange for doling out earmarks or steering contracts to those willing to pay.
Soon afterward, Democrats made the first major dents in the earmark factory when they took control of Congress. They imposed disclosure requirements in 2007 that gave the public a look at what was being requested and what was being spent.
The transparency underscored just how messy things had become.
In one 2009 bill, Jamestown, South Carolina, asked for $50,000 to build shelves for its library, but the district’s congressman instead sent $100,000 to Jamestown, California — a town that didn’t even have a library. A Florida community asked for $100,000 for bus shelters and ended up getting $250,000. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, got the government to pay $200,000 to study elderly Irish immigrants in Queens after a senior citizen’s death went undiscovered for days. Wasilla, Alaska, got $500,000 to pay for more parking spaces at the local airport.
When Republicans took control of the House in 2011, they moved to ban earmarks altogether, saying there just weren’t enough reforms to save the practice.
Rep. John Abney Culberson, Texas Republican, is one of those pushing to restore earmarking in the House. He and his allies pushed for a vote late last year, but Mr. Ryan headed it off, instead promising a task force to re-examine the issue over the next few months and saying that restoring earmarks so soon after Donald Trump’s presidential election victory would send the wrong message to voters.
Mr. Culberson, though, said there is a way to impose controls that would make earmarking safe from the kinds of problems that plagued the 2005 transportation bill.
“I will recommend that the new rule keep targeted spending within the overall budget caps and be limited to federal, state or local government projects that have been planned and approved by the federal, state or local government experts,” Mr. Culberson said.
Senate Republican leaders, meanwhile, have concluded that the earmark ban in place in the previous Congress has expired.
Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who wants to rekindle the ban, has forced a vote Tuesday in the Republican conference. He said it should be an easy call for a party looking to erase doubts about how it will govern now that it is once again in control of the White House and Capitol Hill.
“To address our nearly $20 trillion national debt, Congress needs to focus on eliminating unnecessary spending rather than making wish lists that add to the red ink,” Mr. Flake said in a statement to The Washington Times. “You can’t drain the swamp by feeding pork to the alligators.”
Mr. Flake has the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, who just after the November elections ruled out a return to earmarking.
“I don’t think so,” he said flatly. His office confirmed last week that this was still his stance.
That earmarks are even in the conversation again is surprising. Fewer than half of the members of the House have even served in a Congress where earmarking was allowed, and only a third of lawmakers were around for the truly freewheeling days of the early 2000s, when Republican leaders used earmarks to enforce party unity.
But instead of becoming used to a world without earmarks, new members have been enticed by old-timers who say things ran better when earmarks were used.
One overriding factor was President Obama.
Republican lawmakers say this administration’s public works agencies, particularly the Army Corps of Engineers, refuse to even listen to suggestions from members of Congress about spending priorities in their districts.
Earmarks are one way to give members a say in how that money is spent — and to take back some power from an executive branch that has grown ever more powerful under Mr. Obama.
One option House Republicans considered is to limit earmarks to specific areas of spending, such as water projects. Mr. Culberson’s suggestion to allow earmarks only for government agency projects could also curtail abuses such like the ones that put Mr. Cunningham in prison.
Earmark defenders also say restoring pork will help get Congress back on track. They point to a slim legislative record since 2010, including multiple government shutdown showdowns, that they say could have been avoided if leaders had the power to dole out earmarks and grease the skids for legislation.
Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, countered that Congress has also managed to limit spending increases since the death of earmarks.
“One of the reasons they haven’t spent a lot of money is because they haven’t had the earmarking and logrolling,” Mr. Schatz said. “They’ve been more fiscally conservative without earmarks.”
Mr. Coburn said Congress must insist on “absolute transparency” if earmarks do make a comeback. That means applying Freedom of Information Act laws to Congress when it comes to earmarks and requiring an absolute certification from all members that their earmarks won’t benefit themselves or anyone else in their families.
Better yet, he said, just forget the idea altogether and save themselves a headache. He said voters will punish Republicans if they do restore earmarks.
“I’m amazed,” he said. “Anybody that’s out public for that, they’re going to have the biggest campaign against them in the next election, because it’s nothing but corruption and fraud. That’s what it became over the last 20 years.”
Mr. Young, the congressman who came under fire for the 2005 transportation bill, didn’t respond to requests from The Times for comment, but soon after the Florida earmark story broke, Citizens Against Government Waste nominated him for its annual “Porker of the Year.”
Mr. Young wrote a letter back to Mr. Schatz and Citizens Against Government Waste defending earmarks and pointing to a $1.6 million project he secured to outfit troops in Alaska with technology that he said could see through walls, letting them know whether adversaries were armed. He said soldiers likely survived their deployments to Iraq because of that earmark.
“So, Mr. Schatz, essentially what you are saying is that countless Alaskan lives (and the lives of our military in general) are not worth $1.6 million,” Mr. Young said.