Pork is back on the menu and the appetite is growing on Capitol Hill, where the number of lawmakers voluntarily swearing off earmarks for pet projects has fallen by nearly half compared with last year.
Just 17 of the 41 House members who promised not to request earmarks last year have made the same pledge this year, according to a survey of all congressional offices by the fiscal conservative action group Club for Growth. The holdouts include some top Republican leaders and all five House Democrats who had forsworn earmarks last year.
Just as telling, only six new lawmakers out of 63 that took office this year have said they will forgo earmarks, despite many of those freshmen having run on promises of restoring fiscal responsibility.
Despite expressing disgust for earmarks and pledging not to request them last year, Rep. Jackie Speier, California Democrat, is going her own direction this year.
“She has formed a Citizens Oversight Panel made up of people from across the 12th District and representing different political views to review appropriations requests in public forums and pass their recommendations on to her,” said her spokesman, Mike Larsen. “It is her hope to expand this process to all congressional districts to provide accountability to the appropriations process.”
Other House members said they’re not sure whether they’ll sign again this year.
“It’s still under discussion,” said Anne Lupardus, spokeswoman for Rep. Ron Kind, Wisconsin Democrat.
Andrew Roth, government affairs director for the Club for Growth, compiled the club’s survey of who’s sworn off earmarks by soliciting each congressional office. He also scours reports to see whether members of Congress have issued press releases or told local reporters they have sworn off earmarks.
Mr. Roth said that while this year’s list is smaller than 2008, it’s still better than a few years ago when “you could count all the anti-earmarkers on one hand.”
“I expect more members to join the list once the budget becomes a central focus of Congress, because then the debate about earmarks will heat up again and there will be a political motive to get on this list,” he said.
Earmarks are directions that members of Congress insert into bills or reports insisting that taxpayer money be used for pet projects in their home districts or states. In recent years, they have become contentious as their number and dollar amount have ballooned.
Backers say they constitute a small share of total federal spending, and say lawmakers know how to spend money better than unelected bureaucrats. But opponents say earmarks are part of a problem of overspending, and point to several members of Congress who have ended up in jail for accepting bribes in exchange for doing legislative favors.
There are likely to be thousands of earmarks tucked inside of the next spending bill Congress takes up - a massive catchall measure to fund the government for the rest of fiscal 2009. Congress adjourned last year having only passed annual appropriations for defense, homeland security and veterans, and leaving all the rest of the regular federal budget funded at 2008 levels.
Still, earmark opponents gained ground in recent years - so much so that first President George W. Bush and now President Obama set goals for capping the number of earmarks that lawmakers pass.
Lawmakers have made efforts to increase transparency, but the congressional appetite for earmarks remains in both parties, and that has hamstrung Republicans’ efforts to turn the issue into a political winner.
Some of those who have not yet reissued their pledge to forgo earmarks are top Republicans.
Both Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who is the No. 3 Republican leader as chairman of the House Republican Conference, will likely make a pledge soon, according to their offices.
“Mr. Pence took a no earmark pledge in 2008 and has no intention to change his position,” said spokesman Matt Lloyd.
But Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, Michigan Republican and another member of the party’s elected leadership, is putting off a pledge. His spokesman, Jameson Cunningham, said Republican leaders have put together a task force to look at how House Republicans will approach earmarks, and Mr. McCotter “doesn’t want to undermine their efforts by potentially signing on to something in conflict.”
House Republicans’ top leaders don’t see that conflict, though. Both Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia swore off earmarks last year and this year.
Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, who takes a leading role in fighting earmarks, said last year’s total of 48 House and Senate members forswearing earmarks, out of 535 total, was “a great start.” But he said the lack of progress on rewriting the earmark rules may have helped push lawmakers back to the trough.
“I think it was a good sign, we felt we could get some real reform, but without leadership backing, it was difficult to do,” Mr. Flake said.
Though he wouldn’t get into specifics, he promised a bruising fight over earmarks in the upcoming catchall spending bill.
While five House Democrats and three Senate Democrats swore off earmarks last year, this year the total is just two senators.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, who was the first House Democrat to swear off earmarks last year, has not made a similar pledge this year, according to the Club for Growth’s survey. Mr. Waxman’s office didn’t return a call seeking comment.
A call to the office of Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, also was not returned, though he made a vow to swear off earmarks last year as a House member, and also did so in the middle of his Senate campaign.
Mr. Roth said he isn’t holding his breath for Mr. Udall to remake his pledge: “I don’t expect him to. That was a pure campaign ploy for his Senate race.”
Two of Mr. Udall’s Senate Democratic colleagues have pledged not to ask for earmarks: Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. They join Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and John McCain of Arizona.
All six made similar pledges last year, as did then-Sen. Barack Obama.
But Mr. Roth said the lawmakers who are on the list this early, before the appropriations process heats up, are the true believers.
“The people you see right now on this list ideologically believe earmarks are bad. The ones that will join later by and large will join for political reasons,” he said.
The office of one lawmaker who was on last year’s list but not this year’s list says it didn’t get a query. Still, Derick Corbett, a spokesman for Rep. John Linder, Georgia Republican, said he doesn’t expect the congressman to be at the trough.
“Currently, John doesn’t have any plan to ask for earmarks this year,” Mr. Corbett said.