WASHINGTON – Even the entreaties of the three senators running for president were not enough to persuade their colleagues Thursday to curb their appetite for earmarks – the practice of designating federal dollars for pet projects.
Senators soundly rejected a one-year moratorium backed by the presidential hopefuls – Republican John McCain and Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton – even though it put senators from both parties at odds with their presidential contenders.
The vote – 29 in favor of the proposal, 71 opposed – again demonstrated the enduring popularity of earmarks, even though they have figured prominently in recent congressional scandals, including one that landed former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California in prison.
It also underscored the conflicting political interests of the presidential candidates – who see a strong stand against earmarks as a way to show fiscal discipline – and their Senate colleagues who see bringing home the bacon as a way to show constituents they are getting something back for their taxes.
To deprive Republicans of a talking point for the fall election campaign, House Democratic leaders are still considering an earmark moratorium.
The moratorium was designed to give lawmakers time to come up with new reforms to earmarking, which has come under attack because projects are often slipped into bills without public scrutiny and are often funded not on merit, but on political factors such as a lawmaker’s service on an appropriations committee.
A number of Republicans believe that the explosion of earmarks while they controlled Congress – from 1,439 in 1995 to nearly 14,000 in 2005 – contributed to their losing the majority in 2006. Now, those legislators are attacking the practice as a way of restoring their party’s reputation for fiscal discipline.
In the Senate, the moratorium was proposed by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. “The congressional favor factory hasn’t been closed. It is just under new management,” he said.
Democratic leaders say they have reformed the practice, including forcing lawmakers to identify the earmarks they secure and to certify that they have no financial stake in them. Even so, critics said this year’s spending bills were loaded with 12,881 earmarks costing more than $18 billion.
The moratorium vote came as the Senate moved toward approval of a $3 trillion budget for the next fiscal year. The document, which sets spending and tax targets for bills drafted later this year, calls for more spending for domestic programs than President Bush has proposed, extends some of Bush’s tax cuts and provides $35 billion for a second stimulus package if the first one fails to pump up the economy.
Although the document is a nonbinding resolution, both parties are expected to spotlight the votes during this fall’s campaign to highlight differences between the parties. The House approved its version of the budget earlier Thursday.
Clinton was the only senator not on the Appropriations Committee to be listed among the top 10 in securing money for projects in this year’s spending bills. She snagged $342 million in earmarks, alone and working with other lawmakers, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Obama secured $98 million.
McCain sought no earmarks, according to the watchdog group. After the measure failed, the Arizona senator issued a statement noting that “we have to face the facts, and one fact is that we can’t continue to spend taxpayers’ dollars on wasteful, unnecessary pork-barrel projects or cater to the special interests any longer.”
Obama said in a statement that he believes the practice of doling out earmarks “based on a member of Congress’ seniority, rather than the merit of the project,” needed to be reformed. “We can no longer accept an earmarks process that has become so complicated to navigate that a municipality or nonprofit group has to hire high-priced D.C. lobbyists to do it,” the Illinois senator said.
Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines said the New York senator supported the moratorium to give Congress “time to take a hard look at this process and work on improving its transparency and accountability.”
While both Democratic presidential candidates support the earmark moratorium, their campaigns exchanged words over the issue before the vote. Obama’s campaign released his earmark requests for 2005 and 2006 and called on Clinton to follow suit. In response, Reines said that Clinton has “made public the funding she has helped to secure and will make public the requests she submits this year.”