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Understanding Congressional Earmarks

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Understanding Congressional Earmarks


Understanding Congressional Earmarks

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

It's high season once again for congressional earmarks, those special-interest deals that steer federal spending toward lawmakers' pet projects. Members of the House were supposed to get all their earmark wish lists filed by this past Wednesday, but so many spending requests poured in that the deadline has been extended until tomorrow night.

At the same time, all three leading presidential contenders and many other lawmakers say it's time for a moratorium on earmarks.

Joining us to explain is NPR's congressional correspondent, David Welna. David, first of all, what kinds of things get earmarks?

DAVID WELNA: Well, Liane, they are usually things that benefit the constituents in a member of Congress' district very specifically, rather than being of national benefit. They could be roads, they could be schools, they could be improving hospitals. They could be funding a museum, such as one in upstate New York that would commemorate the Woodstock Music Festival - something that's been ridiculed, and that Hillary Clinton wanted to sponsor this year.

HANSEN: How much do these earmarks actually cost the taxpayers?

WELNA: Well, they all have to fit the budget for each department or agency being funded each year, so we're not really talking about extra spending. Still, you know, these earmarks might squeeze money out that would go to more worthy projects in those departments or agencies. And instead of the spending being allocated on merit, as it should be, by the entities being funded, it's being done instead by the amount of political clout a member of Congress has.

Overall though, it still amounts to about 2 percent of the overall spending, which is much, much less money than, say, that which is going to the war in Iraq.

HANSEN: I mentioned in the intro that so many spending requests had poured in, that the House got an extension on the deadline, but is there more to why the House members got five extra days to ask for earmarks?

WELNA: Well, I think it's mainly because so many requests for earmarks came in that the online system that the House Appropriations Committee had set up to receive them simply got overwhelmed. It's an election year, after all, and so a lot of lawmakers want to show their constituents they still can deliver federal spending projects - what some would call pork - to their districts.

But I think another reason the deadline was extended is because there's been some confusion among Republicans about new rules that they've adopted, such as a ban on the so-called monuments to me earmarks for projects that are named after the lawmakers who sponsor them.

HANSEN: Now, explain a little bit about Republicans. They're demanding an earmark moratorium?

WELNA: Yes, they are indeed. And leading the call is President Bush when he delivered his State of the Union address earlier this year. He vowed to veto any spending bill that has earmarks in it. And so Republicans in both the House and Senate have been calling for six months or even one-year moratoriums on earmarks.

Here's Ohio House Republican Steve Chabot.

R: I'm certainly in favor of having all members of Congress forego all earmarks if we could get everybody of both parties to do that. That may be pie in the sky, but I'd like to see it happen.

HANSEN: Congressman Chabot calls it pie in the sky; how have the efforts to limit earmarks fared this year in Congress, David?

WELNA: Well, they basically flopped in both the House and the Senate. Republicans are actually divided, Liane, over whether to restrict earmarks. And Democrats say that President Bush is being a hypocrite vowing to veto earmarks since Republicans vastly increased the number of earmarks during the first six years of his administration.

Just listen to Virginia House Democrat Jim Moran.

R: For six years they controlled the Congress, and for six years, earmarks exploded under the Republican chairman. And now, when the Democrats take over, all of a sudden, he's noticed that there are earmarks on those bills. He never vetoed one of them.

HANSEN: David, you mentioned we're in the election season and that the presidential candidates actually are asking for a moratorium. Do you think this is actually going to change the system?

WELNA: Well, I don't know if it's necessarily going to change the system, but I think there's much more awareness about earmarks. Clearly, these national candidates see it to be advantageous to be against earmarks, but then they are not members of Congress if they're going to be in the White House. Members of Congress thrive on earmarks because there are really a way of showing their constituents that they're effective - that they can bring home the bacon. So I think there's a lot of inertia that's going to keep earmarks going for some time.

HANSEN: NPR's congressional correspondent, David Welna. David, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Liane.

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