House Republicans will meet today to announce that they are renouncing the use of earmarks. Given that Democrats announced the day before that they were banning the earmarking of federal dollars to for-profit businesses, the only opportunity for one-ups-manship by Republican’s was a complete ban. But the Republicans seem to be hoping that no one will remember how we got into this earmark mess in the first place. Even more, they hope no one will remember what they said about earmarks before they won control of Congress and what they did about them after they were in charge.
Lets look back to 1991 when Congress was debating new highway legislation. Republicans were so outraged at the inclusion of 500 earmarked highway project they staged an all night talk-a-thon to deride the legislation. Current Republican Floor Leader John Boehner told the C-Span cameras that night,
I have only been here 7 months, but during my years of public service I have seen some pretty outrageous activities occur in legislative bodies. But I have never seen anything as outrageous as the 1991 highway bill…. I stand opposed to this legislation because spreading pork around to secure enough votes to pass this turkey is wrong.
Congressman Cass Ballenger promised, “When the Republicans control this body, the American people won’t have to wait while we squabble among ourselves over how to make the taxpayer foot the bill for pork…”
A year later, soon to be Speaker Newt Gingrich told the House “the Democrats…see no contradiction between adding $1.5 billion in pork barrel for the politicians and voting for a balanced budget.”
In the years leading up to their seizure of power in 1994 it seemed that Republicans care about eliminating pork more than almost anything. But after the election was a different story. Not only did they not make good on their promise to banish earmarking they literally sent the process through the roof. Government programs that had never previously contained earmarks became saturated with them. Programs containing only a few earmarks became almost nothing but earmarks. The Labor-Health, Human Services and Education bill went from having no earmarks in 1994 to $33 million in earmarks in 1996, nearly a $100 million in 1998, half a billion in 2000 and more than $1 billion in 2002.
A report that I prepared along with others on the Appropriations minority staff in the fall of 2003 described how dramatically the practice had careened out of control. It indicated, fore instance that the number of earmarks in Defense Operation and Maintenance account had swelled from 33 before the Republican takeover to 232 by 2004. In Defense Research and Development the number of earmarks grew from 219 to 1299. This was happening in nearly every appropriation bill and it wasn’t just happening in Appropriations.
The report drew only snickers from Republicans who were committed to conquering new heights in the realm of earmarks. Perhaps the pinnacle was reached with the passage of the 2005 highway bill. Instead of containing 487 earmarks—the number that sparked the all night protest by Republicans on the 1991 highway legislation—the bill contained 6,371 earmarks controlling the expenditure of $23 billion in federal money. As a report I did for the Center for American Progress indicated, the bill not only contained more earmarks than any highway bill in history it contained more than all highway bills combined.
President Bush decided to travel to Speaker Dennis Hastert’s home state to sign the legislation and congratulate the speaker on a $200 million earmark to build a four lane highway near property the speaker had recently purchased.
Since they lost control of Congress, numerous reforms have been adopted. People requesting them have to post their requests and the justification for the request on the internet so the public and the press can find out who wanted them and why. Members must certify that neither they nor their family have a financial interest in the earmark. The number and size of earmarks have been substantially reduced from 2007 levels. Earmarks to for profit companies must be put up for competition by agencies managing the funds if they believe the recipient will not provide the government with best value. Now for profit earmarks are being eliminated altogether.
But none of that is enough. The party of “reform” is on the march again. It appears that their commitment right now is only to give up earmarks for this year. Since their Senate counterparts don’t expect to allow many if any appropriations pass before the election they probably aren’t giving up very much. The question is what will the policy be for 2012 when if all goes as planned they will be back in the drivers seat thanks in large part to the voters appreciation of their stalwart opposition to this sordid practice.