Everyone wants in on earmark reform, but accomplishing it is another thing.
During his final State of the Union address in late January, President Bush laid down the gauntlet on earmarks. Chiding both parties for failing to reduce the costs of home state pet projects by 50 percent, the president threatened to veto all future spending bills that did not meet this criteria. "If these items are truly worth funding, Congress should debate them in the open and hold a public vote," Bush said, garnering a fleeting moment of bipartisan applause from both sides of the aisle.
One week later, it was business as usual on the Hill as congressional appropriators began soliciting earmark requests for fiscal 2009 spending bills. Such is the circuitous and often maddening path of earmark reform.
Democrats vowed last year to dramatically curtail their voracious appetite for earmarks, but never came close to meeting self-imposed goals. The White House only recently discovered its antipathy for earmarks after allowing the practice to explode during the first six years of the Bush presidency. And Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, has scored points by vowing that as president he would veto any bill that includes earmarks-a tactic that critics say would be virtually impossible to execute in a town where pork and congressional reelection campaigns have been happily married for generations.
"There's a level of hypocrisy on both sides," says Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington watchdog group that tracks government spending. "Both sides have benefited from earmarks. It's hypocrisy, but it's also what politics is."
In recent years, earmarks have become as popular outside the Beltway as pharmaceutical lobbyists or used car salesmen. A spate of controversial projects, most notably the infamous Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska, became fodder for late-night show hosts and a rallying point for serious-minded reformists. Meanwhile, a recent spate of ethics scandals involving earmarks helped send two members of Congress to prison, led to the indictment of a third and forced several others to abandon quests for reelection.
Democrats rode their "culture of corruption" argument to an election victory that gave them control of both Houses in 2006, promising to slash earmark spending in half from the 2005 high-water mark of almost $23.6 billion. But, according to a database released in February by Taxpayers for Common Sense, members inserted $18.3 billion worth of earmarks in 2007 spending bills, a reduction of only 23 percent. Even less impressive was the 8 percent reduction overall, from more than 14,000 in 2005 to nearly 13,000 in 2007.
Transparency, the hallmark of the reform effort, also appears to have come up short. In July, the Senate backpedaled on a disclosure law implemented by the House, that would have forced its members to divulge the recipients and locations of earmarks. Rather, senators need only swear that they have not sponsored any earmark that would result in personal financial gain. Rules to prohibit airdropped earmarks-projects that appear for the first time in final legislation-also have failed to live up to expectations. More than 100 Homeland Security Department earmarks were not released until 1 a.m. on Dec. 17, 2007, just 10 hours before members were to vote on the department's spending bill. Nearly 400 airdropped earmarks, worth nearly $1 billion, were scattered throughout the 2008 spending bills; a decline from previous years but far from the total elimination some expected.
Despite the decidedly mixed bag of results, reform advocates still find reason for optimism. "Incremental progress is where we are, and that's better than no progress at all," Alexander says. "There's been increased transparency, especially in the House and much better than in the years leading up to 2005. But the public still does not understand why these [funding] decisions are being made."
Double talk on earmarks is not limited to Congress. While decrying the corruptive nature of the process, the executive branch received more than
$20 billion in earmarks in spending bills last year, the TCS database showed. The White House says those projects received rigorous agency review and therefore should not be considered earmarks. In addition, dozens of groups promoting good government, including many influential conservatives, implored the president to strip all earmarks that appeared in committee reports for the 2008 omnibus spending bill. But the White House demurred on the retro-active approach, issuing an executive order directing agencies to ignore all future earmark requests unless they were included in the text of legislation and therefore brought to an official vote.
But, budget experts say the order is rife with loopholes. With relatively little effort, appropriators could include language in all funding bills stating that committee report requests should be honored as law. In addition, lawmakers could continue to airdrop earmarks into bills after they have been agreed to by conference committees, making them nearly impossible to remove. And avoiding the president's veto could be as simple as sitting on the 2009 budget-using continuing resolutions to keep the government running-into the next administration. In that case, it would be up to the next president to decide whether to honor the executive order.
Left virtually unsaid in the fierce rhetorical debate about earmark reform is the paltry impact pork barrel projects have on the country's fiscal health and its estimated $9.2 trillion national debt. Earmarks, even at their highest point, represent less than half of 1 percent of the budget-a fraction of what is spent on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The Office and Management and Budget and the Treasury Department released a report, "The Federal Government's Financial Health," in February indicating that the country is on an unsustainable fiscal path and that within the next 35 years entitlements will "completely swallow all available revenue," leaving insufficient resources available for national defense and homeland security.
"There's an excessive focus on earmarks to the detriment of the major issues we face," says Charles Konigsberg, a veteran fiscal adviser and the author of America's Priorities: How the Government Raises and Spends $3,000,000,000,000 (Trillion) Per Year (AuthorHouse, 2008). "Earmarks are such a drop in the bucket compared to the true fiscal crisis we face. It's really a distraction . . . You could eliminate every earmark from here to the end of time and it just won't make a difference."