Despite earmark ban, lawmakers try to give money to hundreds of pet projects
The moratorium, announced last November in the House and in February in the Senate, is a verbal commitment by the Republican leadership to prohibit lawmakers from directing federal funds to handpicked projects and groups in their districts. Lawmakers have tried to get around the moratorium by promising to allow other groups to compete for the funds. But the legislative language is so narrowly tailored that critics consider the practice to be earmarking by another name.
The efforts to resurrect spending on pet projects reveal the tenuous nature of current reform efforts. Two senators have publicly called out their colleagues and will introduce legislation Wednesday that would ban earmarking with the force of law.
“I have heard too many appropriators say informally that they are very hopeful that we can get back to earmarking in the future with few restrictions,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is co-authoring the bill with Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.). “That has come out of the mouths of Democrats and Republicans.”
Most of the spending bills — which will determine the nation’s priorities for defense, transportation, water and other needs — are still being debated, so it is unclear how many special provisions will survive. Some that have been proposed by one committee have already eliminated by another.
Even as some lawmakers attempt to permanently ban earmarks, others are trying to revive them in certain contexts.
This month, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) wrote to House leaders asking that some flood-protection earmarks be restored, saying her project has been publicly vetted and her constituents’ safety is put at risk by flood-prone rivers around Sacramento. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a critic of earmarks, last year began calling for Congress to have a role again in directing money for road and highway projects in the transportation bill, provided that the process is “open and transparent.”
Bachmann said Tuesday that she supports McCaskill and Toomey’s efforts.
“I wholeheartedly support the House moratorium on earmarks,” she said. “Therefore, I commend Senators McCaskill and Toomey for introducing legislation which would ban earmarks in the upper chamber as well.”
Matsui said earmarks should not be banned on principle.
“I think members of Congress know their districts pretty well and know what they need,” she said. “By banning [earmarks] entirely, we are giving all the power to the administration. I don’t care if it’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House, they should not have that power.”
Despite recurrent calls to crack down on earmarks, the practice had reached a peak before the moratorium. The Congressional Research Service found that earmark spending nearly tripled over a 15-year period, to $31.9 billion in 2010, the year before the ban.