By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006
With the backing of President Bush, Congress is ready to rein in one of its fastest-growing and most controversial practices: earmarking.
An earmark is a narrowly focused appropriation. Once relatively rare and little discussed in public, these home-state projects -- which range from highways to research grants -- now are commonplace in Congress's 13 annual appropriations bills that fund the federal government.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the number of earmarks has grown from 4,155 valued at $29 billion in 1994 to 14,211 worth $53 billion a decade later.
Last year, earmarks made headlines when Alaska lawmakers won a $223 million appropriation for a single bridge between the town of Ketchikan and the even smaller Gravina Island. Under pressure, the "Bridge to Nowhere" earmark was withdrawn.
This year, with Congress eager to find ways to improve its image after the Jack Abramoff cash-for-favors scandal, "earmark reform" is an element common to ethics legislation offered by Democrats and Republicans. In his State of the Union speech this week, Bush said, "I am pleased that the members of Congress are working on earmark reform, because the federal budget has too many special interest projects."
Bush asked for "line-item veto" authority, which would allow him to kill individual projects that he disliked rather than having to veto entire bills. Reluctant to cede too much power to the president, lawmakers are more likely to make it harder for earmarks to make their way into law by subjecting them to hearings and requiring them to be voted on in the normal course of legislating -- which does not always happen now.
Earmarks are supposed to go through a public process. Lawmakers, acting on a need in their districts or states, submit a written request to the appropriate congressional subcommittee and ask the panel's members for support -- in private and at an open hearing.
Instead, projects, many of which are never openly considered, are handed out as favors in exchange for votes on key pieces of legislation by party leaders and appropriations chairmen. Alternatively, earmarks are withheld as punishment when lawmakers fail to toe the party line. In addition, earmarks are regularly slipped into legislation at the very end of the process -- during House-Senate conference deliberations.
Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said that 98 percent of the 3,000-plus earmarks added to a single appropriations bill last year were added in conference. Such last-minute earmarks are routinely included in a conference report that cannot be tampered with before final passage.
Schatz said that the proliferation of earmarks started after Republicans took control of the House in 1994. Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) directed appropriators to help GOP lawmakers with tough reelection races by giving them projects they could boast about back home.