By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008
To the casual observer, it might appear that Congress finally is ready to swear off government pork.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, is championing a one-year moratorium on funding for home-state projects known as earmarks. Both Democratic presidential candidates -- Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York -- support the moratorium. And aides to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have hinted all week that she, too, may be ready to take action.
But despite the high-profile talk of reform, many lawmakers remain strongly resistant to any limit on their ability to direct federal spending to pet projects in their home states. Yesterday, as the moratorium was introduced in the Senate, activists said they expect it to fail when senators vote as soon as today.
"Anything that raises the issue is good but . . . the opposition in the Senate is fairly strong," said Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit organization that chronicles pork-barrel projects in its annual Pig Book.
"A lot of people view this as presidential politics, just something Clinton and Obama need to do," Schatz said.
The issue highlights significant differences in the spending philosophies of the three candidates. For years, Clinton has unapologetically brought home the bacon. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, she won 261 earmarks worth $266 million in this year's appropriations bills. Obama, who says he limits his earmark requests to support for public entities, won 53 earmarks worth $126 million, according to Schatz's group.
McCain is one of just a few senators who eschew earmarks, and he made attacks on the practice a regular part of his stump speech.
This week, McCain plans to take a break from campaigning to lend his support to the moratorium, according to aides to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the bill's co-sponsor. Yesterday, DeMint took to the Senate floor with a two-foot stack of earmarked projects and urged his colleagues to adopt the moratorium.
DeMint noted that the number of earmarks plummeted in fiscal 2007 after Republicans lost control of Congress. But they soared in appropriations bills for the current fiscal year, to 11,612 projects worth $17.2 billion, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.
"Voters threw out the Republicans in 2006 hoping for a change, but not much has changed," DeMint said. "The congressional favor factory hasn't been closed. It's just under new management."
And the new management looks reluctant to make any changes. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) this week said a moratorium was "unrealistic."
"Congressionally directed money . . . has been going in this country for 230-some-odd years," he said.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) declined to state a position on a moratorium, but said he is a strong defender of Congress's "authority and responsibility to appropriate monies."
Republican leaders were no more encouraging. Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) declined again to say whether he will vote for the moratorium. And Judd Gregg (N.H.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, dismissed efforts to limits earmarks as "a crock."
Even Pelosi seemed to back away from suggestions that she might temporarily ban the practice.
"I see the value of earmarks. I would like for us to be able to move forward in a way that we have put forth, limiting the numbers, making them more transparent so that the public can see who is doing them," she said. But there may be a de facto moratorium this year if Congress is unable to approve appropriations bills that the president will sign, she said.
Given the turmoil surrounding the budget, "I'm not sure that I see a scenario in which there would be earmarks this year," Pelosi said. "But I hope that's not the case."