WASHINGTON – For all the tough talk in Washington about eliminating earmarks, lawmakers are still clinging to the popular practice of diverting federal funds to pet projects to the tune of $39.4 billion.
Earlier this week, Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Clinton, N.Y., and Barack Obama, Ill., announced they would co-sponsor a one-year moratorium on all congressional earmarks during the fiscal 2009 appropriations cycle.
The moratorium would not affect past earmarks and has not yet come to a vote in either the Senate or House. Sen. John McCain, Ariz., the Republican presidential hopeful and pork barrel fighter, also has signed onto the amendment.
Lawmakers attach earmarks to legislation to fund projects in their districts. Earmarks are controversial because they often bypass ordinary legislative scrutiny and are not included in the government’s formal budget.
Repeated efforts to eliminate earmarks, such as the moratorium proposal, have failed because legislators have refused to relinquish the easy money. Earmarks are particularly valuable for newer members of Congress seeking re-election because it gives them something to brag about during a campaign.
The 41 freshmen House Democrats brought $1.12 billion to their districts in 2007 for an average of $27.4 million per freshman, according to an earmark database compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group. The 13 Republican freshmen accumulated $175 million in earmarks for an average of $13.4 million per member. The average earmark per House member was $28.1 million last year, though 12 members did not make any earmark attachments.
Both Clinton and Obama, have been busy earmarking legislation. Clinton ranked 10th among senators for earmark funding with $342 million and Obama 78th with $98.6 million in 2007.
“For [Clinton] and Obama to come along and say ‘we’d like a moratorium’ is clearly a political decision,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. He said this moratorium would effectively reassert the “watered down” reform bill passed last year.
Shutting off the funding may be difficult even for those who oppose earmarks. House Republicans sponsored an earmark resolution in November 2007 that would establish an earmark reform committee. The 78 Republicans who co-sponsored the resolution diverted $1.72 billion dollars to their districts in 2007. Five of those co-sponsors did not attach any earmarks.
McCain is one of six senators who have sworn off earmarks. The presidential candidate said in February that as president he would veto any legislation with earmarks attached. For McCain and other fiscal conservatives, the earmark reform plays a central role in their “branding,” said Adam Brandon, spokesman for FreedomWorks, a fiscal conservative advocacy group.
“Our advice to fiscal conservatives, especially in election times is earmarks are going to serve you wrong,” Brandon said.
FreedomWorks and other groups like the Club for Growth have challenged congressmen to shun earmarks. FreedomWorks has received 10 pledges from current congressmen not to seek earmarks. The Club for Growth lists on its web site 29 House members and seven senators who have made a similar commitment, but 23 of those members tagged earmarks in 2007.
Others in Congress have argued that some earmarks are necessary and allocate money for after school programs and police computers. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., wrote in a New York Times editorial that an earmark funded the Iraq Study Group.
But earmarks divert funds away from federal agencies and can sway how congressmen vote, Schatz said. To allocate money to a congressional district, the funding must be cut from somewhere else, he said, often from vital agency improvements. Additionally, legislators might be compelled by party leadership to vote for an unfavorable bill if there are earmarks attached.
“So what you see is members saying our project is in there and you better vote with us,” Schatz said.
But earmarks reform could backfire this November if a challenger can imply the incumbent has not done enough for the district. Christopher J. Deering, chair of the political science department at George Washington University, said earmarks would not play a significant role in the big political picture.
“Overall, earmarks are going to play a rather small role in elections this fall,” he said.