PORK IS NOT PARTISAN. Republicans took over Congress in the mid-1990s promising to cut wasteful government spending, then started a feeding frenzy at the public trough. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the number of earmarks (home-district projects whose funding is inserted into spending bills) in the House went from 3,000 in 1996 to 15,000 in 2005. Democrats wrested Congress back last year with many of the same promises and initially seemed to be fulfilling them, but in reality they just found a sneakier way to fund their pet projects.
The best way to cut the bacon fat is with a limited, presidential line-item veto, but an effort last year by President Bush to establish one was crushed in Congress. The second best would be for Democrats to keep their word and pass a law requiring public disclosure of earmark sponsors.
In February, Democrats took the spending bills they had inherited from the Republican Congress and stripped them of all earmarks, with incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) patting himself so hard on the back for his party’s fiscal restraint that he was in danger of spraining something. He then turned around and wrote to federal agencies asking them to fund many of the projects that had been eliminated from the bills, according to research by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Reid was far from alone; lawmakers from both parties wrote to agencies appealing for projects in their districts.
Back in January, when pork was very much in the public spotlight, the Senate passed a bill requiring disclosure of the names of earmark sponsors. The House simply changed its rules to require disclosure. Since then, the process of reconciling the Senate bill with a similar version passed in the House has stalled. Some senators are disclosing their earmarks anyway, while others refuse. It is a near certainty, though, that unless the practice is codified in law, senators will return to business as usual. House rules, meanwhile, can be altered with each new session of Congress.
Attaching names to earmarks won’t eliminate them, but it decreases the likelihood that politicians will try to grab funds for something truly outrageous, such as the notorious $223-million Alaskan “bridge to nowhere.” The public is still watching; Democrats will pay a political price if they let earmark reform die.