Congress Divided over Practice of Budget 'Earmarks'

Some members of Congress seek sweeping reforms to curtail "earmarks," the term for special funding slipped into bills for projects in lawmakers' home districts. But others defend the practice.

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Next we'll report on a basic rule of lawmaking that's sometimes blamed for corruption. Senators and members of Congress are allowed to slip special provisions into larger spending bills. The money benefits their home districts in a practice called earmarking. The number of earmarks is 10 times larger than it was a decade ago, and now a lobbying scandal is increasing pressure for reform. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

As the House GOP leadership's point man for lobbying reform, California's David Dreier acknowledged last week that he may have to work with the powerful Appropriations Committee to cut back on earmarks.

Congressman DAVID DREIER (Republican, California): We know concerns have been raised about that from a number of our colleagues. And I've been working, talking with Chairman Jerry Lewis on this, and I believe that we do have a chance to do it.

WELNA: But Pork Barrel spending experts are dubious. Trinity College's Diana Evans wrote a book on the subject, called, Greasing the Wheels. She says those at the top in Congress have good reasons not to stop handing out earmarks to members.

Ms. DIANA EVANS (Author, Greasing the Wheels): The leaders see it as useful, both in terms of building supporting coalitions for their legislation, and also, the pork that goes to members of their party helps them to regain the majority. So, you know, there's a lot of self-interests at work, here.

WELNA: In fact, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, defended earmarks last week, even as he acknowledged the need for reform.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (Speaker of the House, Republican, Illinois): Quite frankly, we also have to deserve the rights of members to represent their districts, and to be active in favors of things that they think will help.

WELNA: One of the biggest defenders of earmarks is Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott.

Senator TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi): Democrats and Republicans do, have done it, and will do it, and I'm not going to give up that opportunity for my state.

WELNA: And that makes sense, especially if you're from a poor state like Mississippi, says Brown University's Wendy Schiller.

Ms. WENDY SCHILLER (Brown University): How else do you demonstrate to your constituents that you're actively representing them, that you're pursing federal dollars, that you are really advocating on their behalf? I mean, this is the most efficient and simplest way to show that you're doing a good job as their representative.

WELNA: And it's not just the ruling Republicans who defend pork. Jerry Nadler is a House Democrat, who got more than $150 million in earmarks last year for his New York City District.

Representative JERRY NADLER (Democrat, New York): To say that there's something wrong with that is to say to bureaucrats in the Department of whatever, always know better than the elected representatives what's good for the people.

WELNA: And just as Democrats did when they were in power, Republicans have been generous in granting earmarks to the minority party. That way everyone has a stake in keeping the system going. But that system was jolted last year when California House Republican Duke Cunningham was convicted of taking bribes in exchange for earmarks. Now, even some Democrats who sought earmarks, such as New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt say, enough is enough.

Congressman RUSH HOLT (Democrat, New Jersey): I guess I would rather see all earmarks banned, than to see this get further out of hand.

WELMA: And Arizona Republican Senator John McCain holds out hope, even in this midterm election year, for revamping the rules on earmarks.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): We've reached a tipping point, now where the American people are saying, enough, and to go back and tell your constituents, well, I've got this pork barrel project for you, and that's sufficient for my reelection, no longer works.

WELNA: But Trinity College pork expert, Diana Evans, says the best evidence indicates earmarks do help members get reelected.

PROFESSOR DIANA EVANS (Political Science, Trinity College): So, as long as that's the case, then I think members themselves are going to feel like earmarks are important. And if they feel like earmarks are important, they're not going to get rid of them.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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