Last fall, the newly ascendant congressional Democrats promised a thorough reform of earmarks or, failing that, a one-year moratorium on them. That was then and this is now, and now is an election year.
Earmarks are the lawmakers’ pet pork projects and though the individual projects are not necessarily bad — indeed, many of the projects are quite worthwhile — they are attached to spending bills outside the regular budget process. Receiving little or no scrutiny, many earmarks are simply wasteful; the worst of them, like the “bridge to nowhere,” are painfully easy to caricature. The lawmakers know the earmarks make Congress look bad and make them look like spendthrifts — last year, earmarks totaled $18 billion — but it would take collective will to act.
Right now, the collective will says, “Let’s get re-elected.”
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, not to mention the will of the Senate and the balkiness of her own troops, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has given up on a moratorium this year. The trough, as one news story put it, is open for feeding.
The race is now on to attach flashy local spending projects to the 12 money bills Congress must pass to fund government operations for the next fiscal year. The fiscal year begins this Oct. 1, just over a month before the elections, plenty of time to brag to the constituents about all their representative has done for them.
There’s a catch. With the exception of defense, which is bad enough with $6 billion in pork in the last bill, Congress is chronically unable to pass these bills on time, sometimes not until the next calendar year, let alone in time for the election. And if by some miracle, they do pass the bills, President Bush is likely to veto them as part of an ongoing dispute over spending.
So, the lawmakers get their earmarks; they just won’t get any timely political credit for them. And earmark reform can wait another year.