WASHINGTON – House Democratic leaders announced Wednesday that they will ban the much-criticized practice of using annual spending bills to direct pet projects to companies that often return the favor with campaign contributions.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the Appropriations panel, told reporters that he hopes the step will mean 1,000 fewer earmarks and break the linkage between campaign contributions and earmarks that has sparked intense criticism and resulted in ethics probes of several lawmakers.
But the move sparked strong opposition from Senate Appropriations panel chair Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, his Senate counterpart and a long-standing defender of earmarking. He issued a tartly worded response defending the current system and calling Obey’s move “quizzical.”
The election-year step comes after the ethics committee investigated seven members of a Pentagon spending panel for rewarding earmarks to companies whose executives and hired lobbyists showered them with campaign cash. The panel found no linkage and absolved the lawmakers.
Republicans, meanwhile, are weighing giving up earmarks altogether in an appeal to voters frustrated with Washington’s free-spending ways.
The subject of earmarks has over the years brought criticism of Congress that’s often generated by wasteful earmarks such as the $200-million-plus “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska that was supposed to connect an island with a population of just 50 or so to the mainland. But among congressional watchdogs the more odious element has been the pay-to-play culture in which campaign cash flows from earmark beneficiaries into the coffers of lawmakers.
“For-profit earmarks are really where the rubber meets the road as far as corruption,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group that has been critical of earmarking.
The most commonly accepted definition of an earmark is a specific project that’s not requested by the president but inserted into one of the annual spending bills by a member of Congress. They come in countless varieties, like grants to police departments, improvements to military bases, renovations to historic buildings and research grants for home-district colleges.
But at issue in the new edict are earmarks aimed at for-profit entities, especially those who are seeking to tap into the Pentagon’s $600 billion-plus budget. Many if not most of such companies hire lobbyists to navigate the process and it’s common for both company executives and the hired lobbyist to give campaign cash to lawmakers that sponsor their earmarks.
The potential move by Republicans to unilaterally drop earmarks revives a campaign by GOP Leader John Boehner of Ohio to wean his party off earmarks. He lost that fight in 2008 when seeking to win back the House, and most Republicans – even some die-hard conservatives – ask for earmarks.