Congress Cracking Down on Earmarks

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In Congress, lawmakers are moving toward banning earmarks and jockeying for who gets credit. House Republicans, who earmarked with abandon while they were in charge, are calling for a moratorium on the so-called pet projects. In the Senate, Republican Jim DeMint has a similar proposal.


Congress is once again tackling the issue of earmarks, those special interest projects that lawmakers stick into bills. When Democrats took control of Congress last year, they made some changes aimed at identifying earmarks and adding transparency to the process. Now, some members say, it's time to go a step further and end the earmarks, if not forever, at least for a year.

NPR's Brian Naylor has our report.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina sounded as though he was channeling his inner Amy Winehouse as he introduced an amendment on the Senate floor today to impose a one year moratorium on earmarks.

Senator JIM DeMINT (Republican, South Carolina): When you got addiction, you have to agree you have a problem and you have to get into rehab. Congress needs to get into rehab. We need to stop earmarking this year, take a time out, figure out how to reform the system.

NAYLOR: The system was reformed last year adding transparency and some controls over how earmarks were inserted. Still, that didn't stop funding for projects such as $351,000 to study the Asian Longhorned Beetle in Illinois, $100,000 for a fake prison museum, and $400,000 for the Montana Sheep Institute. The debate over earmarks has created some unusual alliances. It's no surprise that one of the DeMint's cosponsors is Republican Senator John McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, is a long-time critic of pork barrel spending. But the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates - Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - have also signed on.

Over in the House, California Democrat Henry Waxman is now an earmark opponent. Waxman says the whole business of earmarks has become, well, a business.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): There's a whole, new world developed - a whole industry developed around earmarks. Lobbyists go to constituents and ask them to see if they can try to get me to support money for them, then they pay the lobbyists and the lobbyists encourage more requests for more money. And it's really out of control.

NAYLOR: Waxman says he's asked Democratic leaders in the House to reject earmarks for a year. So far, they've been noncommittal. Democrats point out that the number of earmarks rose dramatically while Republicans controlled Congress and have declined since Democrats have been in charge. And there are many lawmakers in both parties who defended the practice of what they like to call congressionally directed spending.

Democratic Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota said if it weren't for earmarks, small states like his would lose out.

Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota): I don't think the answer, speaking for myself, is to eliminate all congressionally directed funding. I'm very proud of the earmarks that we've directed to the state of North Dakota.

NAYLOR: Earmarks are also popular with that breed of lawmaker known as appropriators. Members of the Appropriations Committee are cool to the idea of the moratorium. Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire says it would give more power to the executive branch.

Senator JUDD GREGG (Republican, New Hampshire): I think an outright abolition of earmarks is an abolition of the authority of the Congress, and is basically - passes to the executive branch, massive amounts of authority, which I'm not sure you want to embed in a bureaucracy which is unaccountable. At least members of Congress are accountable.

NAYLOR: Gregg says earmarks represent only a tiny fraction of the $3 trillion annual budget, and opponents are facing an uphill battle to eliminate them in an election year.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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