Without Earmark 'Grease,' Some Say, Spending Bills Get Stuck

For all their notoriety as wasteful "pork barrel" projects, earmarks did have one obvious benefit: They helped congressional leaders pass spending bills. A multibillion-dollar appropriations package was much easier to sell to members if they could brag about something for their home states. In recent years, with earmarks banned, spending bills have largely been replaced with "continuing resolutions," which simply keep spending levels for existing programs going for a few more weeks or months.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

While Congress tries to get to the bottom of what went wrong with the Affordable Care Act website, it's got other problems on its mind. Leading the list is the inability of lawmakers to carry out their most fundamental constitutional responsibility: appropriating the money needed to run the government in a timely fashion.

This month's shutdown was only the most recent fallout of the breakdown in appropriations. Some lawmakers say the Republican ban on earmarks nearly three years ago has only made things worse. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Every year, Congress is supposed to enact 12 individual spending bills that fund the entire range of government operations by Oct. 1st, the start of the new fiscal year. Not only has it failed to meet that deadline nearly every year in the past four decades, in the past three years - since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives - Congress has not enacted a single regular spending bill.

REP. DAVID PRICE: This process is in deep, deep trouble.

WELNA: That's North Carolina Democrat David Price. During his 20 years on the House Appropriations Committee, he says it has not been easy pushing spending bills through Congress. But this year, by far, has been the hardest.

PRICE: It's not just that bipartisan cooperation is impossible, which has been a hallmark of appropriations; appropriations itself is impossible. You simply cannot pass these bills. Republicans won't vote for them.

WELNA: That became painfully clear in July, just as Congress was about to begin its summer recess. House Republican leaders wanted something for members to tout back home. So they announced a House vote on the big, annual spending bill that funds transportation. Hours later, though, they pulled it from the House floor because the measure, which has traditionally gotten broad bipartisan support, did not have enough votes to pass.

Steve LaTourette was an Ohio Republican on the appropriations panel before leaving Congress late last year. He says the transportation bill's 28 percent funding cut was too drastic, even for many Republicans.

STEVE LATOURETTE: You can't muster 218 votes if you're not going to get it on the Republican side for a low number. The Democrats certainly aren't going to walk across the aisle and say: Well, I'll help you with a bill that I think is insufficient.

WELNA: LaTourette says it hasn't helped that Republicans banished earmarks, those provisions inserted by individual lawmakers that tell federal agencies how and where money should be spent.

LATOURETTE: Clearly earmarks, the lack of earmarks, has had an impact on the ability of the appropriations process to move forward.

WELNA: And that's because if they don't get any earmarks, many lawmakers find no compelling reason to support a spending bill. Jim Dyer was, for many years, the Republican staff director of the House appropriations panel.

JIM DYER: The truth of the matter is, earmarks have long been the grease that kept this engine going.

WELNA: Eight years ago, that grease became a political liability. There was the infamous "bridge to nowhere" earmarked for Alaska. There was also the trial and conviction of California House Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who on the day he was sentenced to eight years in prison apologized for taking kickbacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RANDY 'DUKE' CUNNINGHAM: I have had great joy and great sorrow. And now, I know great shame.

WELNA: But retired Wisconsin Democrat David Obey, who once chaired the House appropriations panel, says bringing back earmarks would not necessarily compensate for big cuts in spending bills.

DAVID OBEY: The lack of earmarks is not the main reason why they can't pass appropriation bills. The main reason is that the budget resolution starts with unrealistic assumptions.

WELNA: Such as the House GOP budget's assumption that huge deficits can be eliminated over the next decade with no increase in taxes. That may be, says earmarks expert Diana Evans, of Trinity College. But restoring earmarks could give more lawmakers some skin in the game.

DIANA EVANS: Without them - and there doesn't seem to be much of a move in Congress to restore them - to get rid of the ban, I think that things don't look good.

WELNA: North Carolina's Price says Congress's inability to duly exercise its power of the purse does raise a fundamental, existential question.

PRICE: When we're going through all this drama and all this lurching from crisis to crisis, we need to ask: What are we doing to ourselves, what are we doing to our capacity for self-government?

WELNA: Beyond another shutdown, Price says what's really on the line is the ability to govern.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

MONTAGNE: And you are listening to NPR News.

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