Some Dems Have Change of Heart on Earmarks

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Many Democrats campaigned for Congress this year by criticizing Republicans for "earmarking," the practice of setting aside money for pet projects, often without significant review. But now that the Democrats are in power, some are having a change of heart about earmarks.

MIKE PESCA, host:

According to last month's exit polls, the number one issue for midterm voters, more than Iraq, more than terrorism, was ethics and corruption. The ethic reform banner was taken up by many Democrats who campaigned against earmarks, those dead-of-night provisions often tacked on to legislation which only benefit small communities.

Well, now that the Democrats are actually going to take control, the issue of ethics reform has been rethought a little bit by some powerful Democratic politicians.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: When the new Congress convenes next month, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid says lawmakers will hit the ground running, offering up a package of reforms.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): This is the first thing I'm going to address as the new majority leader is ethics reform, lobbying reform, earmark reform. And it'll be the most significant ethics reform since Watergate.

NAYLOR: House leaders plan a similar push, but Democrats are divided over how far to go with their reforms. The issue of earmarks is especially thorny. Former Republican Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham pleaded guilty to bribery charges related to earmarks he snuck into bills. But Democrats on the Appropriations Committees, like their Republican colleagues, don't see much need for changing the status quo. The incoming chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, is as renown for the pork he's brought back home as is the Republican who preceded him, Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington will chair a key appropriation sub-committee in the new Senate, one that doles out funds for highways and bridges. She says earmarks are not in and of themselves bad.

Senator PATTY MURRAY (Democrat, Washington): We don't want to have a budget in appropriations process where the only decision about what is funded across the country is done out of the White House and their agencies. So as the representative of the people of my state, or any senator who represents a state, need to have the ability to make an impact on how the federal dollars are spent. If that's how earmarks are used, I think it is an absolute appropriate and important way of spending federal dollars.

NAYLOR: Such justifications, though, sound like hypocrisy to the ear of Brian Riedl, a budge analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

Mr. BRIAN RIEDL (Budge Analyst, The Heritage Foundation): All of a sudden, now that the Democrats are running earmark favor factory, the chances of them supporting reform has seriously dropped. I'm not sure that Congress can pass any earmark or ethics reforms next year.

NAYLOR: Last year, there were some 16,500 earmarked provisions at a cost of nearly $50 billion according to the Congressional Research Service. Some Democrats are working to implement far-reaching earmark reforms. Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland is a co-sponsor of one such bill in the House. It would bar lawmakers from earmarking projects for organizations and companies that employed members of their family or former staffers, a now common practice. Van Hollen warns Democrats against backing away from serious reform.

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland): I think it would be a big mistake. I think that if we take that attitude, we'll simply be repeating the mistakes that many Republicans made. I think that the mandate from this last election is to have a change in direction, to clean up the process in Washington. The voters don't care if it's Democrats or Republicans that are using this process to serve their private interest as opposed to the public interests.

NAYLOR: Senator Murray does favor some reforms, whether it be attaching lawmakers' names to the earmarks they sponsor, or prohibiting last-minute dead-of-the-night earmarks. Murray says a more straightforward budget process would in itself go far to address the problem.

Sen. MURRAY: I think the problem has become so bad in the last several years, because the Republican-controlled Congress passed extremely tight budgets and put forward appropriations bills that didn't fund the basic needs of America. So in order to get the votes, the Republican majority often put what would be considered a pork provision into a bill in order to secure a vote.

NAYLOR: Murray says Democrats have to put forward budgets that are responsible, and, as she puts it, real. But with an expensive ongoing war to pay for, that in itself poses another serious challenge for Democrats.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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