When the Democrats took control of Congress in 2007 their leadership announced with great fanfare that they were going to do battle with out-of-control earmark spending, reining in the lawmakers’ personal pork projects and making them more transparent.
The Democratic leadership is losing that battle. The earmarks are more transparent — both the projects and lawmakers behind them are now identified — but, after an initial spurt of self-discipline, their numbers are rising rapidly
Earmarks are directed spending that instructs the government to fund specific projects and programs. Understandably, they are enormously popular with members of Congress although a few gutsy members, notably Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., carry on a lonely crusade against them. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is another.
More than 11,000 earmarks worth $15 billion have been attached to spending bills this year and next year promises to be worse.
The Associated Press reports the House Appropriations committee "alone has 22,438 earmark requests before it, so many that its Web site for accepting requests froze up and the deadline for receiving them had to be extended."
The zenith of earmark spending was under the Republicans. The watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste says earmarks rose from more than 1,300 projects worth about $8 billion in 1994, the year the Democrats lost control of Congress, to nearly 14,000 worth $27 billion in 2005. The most notorious was Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens’ $223 million "bridge to nowhere" to serve an island of 50 people.
Earmarks do not receive the same scrutiny as other spending and whether they get funded has more to do with the requesting lawmaker’s clout than whether the project has any value. More egregiously, a system known as "pay to play" has grown up. Corporations, universities and defense contractors hire lobbyists to importune members of Congress into granting earmarks and then the happy beneficiaries reward the member with campaign contributions.
In an extensive overview of earmarks, the AP matched up dozens of lawmakers with campaign cash from the recipients of earmarks. There is serious potential for corruption and one member of Congress has gone to jail for taking bribes for earmarks and two more are under investigation.
It’s also a sloppy way to legislate. You have to give the Democrats credit for at least trying, but you also have to wonder whether their hearts were in it.