WASHINGTON — Before they took control of Congress nearly nine years ago, Republicans often mocked the Democratic practice of larding government spending bills with provisions that earmarked funds for pet projects in particular lawmakers' districts and states.
But a $328.1-billion bill that the Republican-led House expects to pass today, funding a grab bag of government agencies, takes earmarking to greater heights and uses it for what Democrats claim are new, partisan purposes.
The bill includes an eye-popping number of earmarks — around 7,000 by one estimate, at a cost of several billion dollars. Other spending bills bring the grand total for the year to more than 10,000. In that long list are items big and small, from $100,000 for street furniture and sidewalks in Laverne, Ala., to $44 million for a bridge to Treasure Island in Florida — a plum for the Tampa Bay district of House Appropriations Chairman C.W. "Bill" Young.
But more than that, to a degree unseen since their 1995 takeover, the majority Republicans are publicly flaunting their power to use pork for explicitly partisan purposes.
Traditionally, the dominant party oils the legislative machinery by setting aside a healthy fraction of earmarked funds for the minority. This year, in a key section of the spending bill, the Republicans got stingy.
They were irate when House Democrats voted en masse in July against their version of the annual spending bill for the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments. As punishment, in the labor, health and education provisions of the pending bill, they are denying Democrats the customary minority share of what are euphemistically known on Capitol Hill as "member projects."
Increasingly, Republican critics such as Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona are isolated voices when they criticize their own party for outdoing the Democrats in the lavishing of pork.
"Republicans ridiculed this forever, but now we're in and we see how much fun it is," Flake said. "There's no shame anymore." Among his favorites in the omnibus spending bill: $75,000 for a North Pole Transit System in Alaska, $200,000 for a program at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and $325,000 for a swimming pool in Salinas.
The authorship of some earmarks is easy to determine. Most Alaska items, for instance, are inserted into spending bills by Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, a Republican, to benefit his home state. The same is true for projects championed by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the committee's ranking Democrat, for his state, West Virginia. But a vast number of earmarks are harder to trace because the legislative language does not identify who suggested them. The House and Senate committees keep the origins of earmarks confidential. Some lawmakers issue press releases to trumpet their handiwork; many don't.
Earmarking is as old as Congress, and Republicans, no less than Democrats, jealously protect their prerogative. Many Republicans bitterly complained when Bush's first budget chief, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., lampooned earmarks. In one budget document, Daniels included a drawing of Gulliver (the Bush administration) pinned down by a thousand ropes from Lilliputians (congressional regulators).
Now Daniels is gone. And while Bush has insisted this year on holding Congress to a mutually agreed-on cap on its regular spending bill, he has not threatened a veto over earmarks.
Congressional Republicans are relieved the administration has backed off.
Lawmakers "have a better understanding of the needs of their districts than some bean counters" in Washington, said John Scofield, spokesman for House Republican appropriators. He added: "Even if you eliminated earmarks altogether, it would make barely a dent in the federal deficit" — this year estimated at $480 billion.
This is from the same party that, after winning the House of Representatives in 1994, pledged to reform how spending bills were written after five decades of Democratic rule. The 1994 GOP platform known as the "Contract with America" even proposed a presidential line-item veto to rein in what Republicans called "wasteful pork-barrel spending."
Former Rep. Newt Gingrich, House speaker from 1995 to 1999, had pledged in 1992: "I am committed to hunting down every appropriation that we can find that is some politician taking care of himself." About the same time, other House Republicans said that "the American people are tired of paying tax dollars for congressional pork" and "a pig is a pig even if he lives at home."
Now it is the Democrats, who have been the House minority for nearly nine years, who accuse the Republicans of mastering the art of pork-barrel spending. A report issued by the Democrats last month concluded that earmarks had expanded significantly under Republican rule, both on bills that were historically magnets for lawmaker-sponsored projects — such as defense, transportation, agriculture and housing appropriations — and on bills that had been relatively "clean" when House Democrats were in power.
Legislation for labor, health and education programs, for instance, carries earmarks valued at more than $860 million this year. A comparable bill written by Democrats and passed in 1994, according to the report, had none. Such changes have led many university presidents to complain about the growth of "academic pork" in the federal budget — money awarded on the basis of political influence rather than research merit.
"In the past, there is no question that Congress had provided a significant number of earmarks," Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, told the House Nov. 25. "But in the past four or five years, in my view, that has gotten incredibly out of control."
Obey said federal education and research funding had become so heavily earmarked that "virtually every university hires a lobbyist to try to obtain funds through the political process rather than the process of peer review." The new omnibus spending bill, for example, includes $250,000 for technology upgrades at Chapman University in Orange County, and another $250,000 for a telecommunications center named after Sen. Conrad R. Burns (R-Mont.), an Appropriations Committee member, at Montana State University in Bozeman.
Brian Riedl, a federal budget analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, said Republicans had learned to use earmarking to stay in power. "The easiest way to raise money, build a political machine and get reelected is to toss political pork out to your supporters," Riedl said. As a result, he said, "the trend has been straight up."
The omnibus spending bill, which would provide funds for 11 of the 15 Cabinet departments for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, is riddled with about 7,000 earmarks, according to a senior Democratic aide.
Page after page of the Congressional Record for Nov. 25 is devoted to lists of earmarks. The Salinas swimming pool is item No. 111 on a list of 902 items categorized as "economic development initiatives." Among 112 items under "job access and reverse commute grants" is money for the North Pole Transit System. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame funding is one of 111 earmarks for the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
With the power to write earmarks comes the power to deny them. Republicans received "tens of thousands" of earmark requests from lawmakers this year, an aide said, and many of them went unfulfilled. None was allowed on a homeland security spending bill. House Democrats sought to insert into the omnibus bill about $200 million worth of earmarks related to labor, health and education, but were blocked after none of them voted for the GOP labor-health-education bill.
Despite Democratic protests, Republicans asserted they were simply following a retaliatory pattern Democrats established years ago. Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that wrote the controversial spending bill, sent Democrats a letter Oct. 29 that included an unusually public revelation of the mechanics of legislative power.
"It is not unique in this committee for chairmen to use a member's support, or lack of it, as a factor in sorting through the thousands of program and project requests received during the year," Regula said.
At the close of negotiations over the omnibus spending bill, House Democrats were given a consolation prize: about $20 million for earmarking. That money emerged after Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) won $50 million for an indoor rain forest project in Coralville, Iowa, that he had tried but failed to insert into a separate energy bill.
In a sign that those who draft the legislation can sometimes be overwhelmed by detail, the omnibus bill also fixed a mistake in the energy bill. The energy bill had mistakenly earmarked $12 million for ethanol-related research at the University of Mississippi and the University of Oklahoma. The omnibus bill would reroute those funds to their intended destinations: Mississippi State University and Oklahoma State University.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times