Despite new spending curbs linked to President Bush's tax cut, lawmakers are seeking billions of dollars for individual projects in their home districts, causing tension between the Bush administration and its allies on Capitol Hill.
According to figures compiled by congressional staffers, House members have requested 18,898 "earmarks"--targeted expenditures for such home-district projects as highways, dams, parks and museums--in spending bills now making their way through Congress. If all were approved, the total cost would amount to $279 billion, almost the size of the Pentagon's annual budget.
Taking care of the folks back home by means of the appropriations process is hardly a new phenomenon in Congress. Nor is frustration on the part of the executive branch, which prefers to make spending decisions on its own. But as the number of earmarks has increased sharply in recent years, rising more than threefold since Republicans seized control of Congress in 1995, some say the practice has spun out of control.
Chief among them is White House Budget Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., who has launched what one senior House staffer describes as a "jihad" against thousands of proposed earmarks in the 13 annual spending bills that Congress will pass by year's end. In many cases, Daniels says, such targeted expenditures steal resources from more deserving uses, undercut states' authority to determine their needs and increase pressure on government to spend beyond its means.
"They're sort of a natural, traditional part of the process, but it's gotten out of hand," Daniels said in an interview, adding, "In all honesty, I don't think we've had much success so far" in curbing the congressional appetite for earmarks.
Bush's tax cut is based on the assumption that government spending will not increase by more than 4% a year. Lawmakers are already chafing under that limit: Last week, for example, the House passed a $23.7-billion natural resources spending bill that bumps up the president's request by $1.2 billion, much of it earmarked for water projects and beach restoration.
The competition for resources will only intensify later this year when Congress and the administration try to fulfill their pledges for big increases in education and defense spending.