Why Earmark Reform Has Not Changed Much in Congress

How have the two parties tried to reduce pork barrel spending?


Call it good timing. Shortly after an ethics investigation concluded that several members of Congress did not trade earmarks for campaign cash, both parties in the House announced new moratoria on earmarks in spending bills. Earmarks are provisions that members of Congress stick into larger bills that direct federal dollars to specific projects. This spending is often labeled "pork barrel" because of the perception that earmarks benefit only local constituents and special interests. While the changes announced by Congress last week substantially alter the earmarking process, they do little to change Congress's ability to pursue pork barrel spending.

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Rep. David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat and chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, announced that his committee would no longer accept earmarks that fund private for-profit entities. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi denied that this move was connected to the ethics investigations, calling the timing a coincidence. "It just had to do with the time of the year, the beginning," she said at a news conference. "Members are making their requests for earmarks, and we thought it would be important to let them know that they probably should not make a request for an earmark for a business."

Shortly after, House Republicans went a step further and declared a unilateral moratorium on all earmarks. Minority Leader John Boehner explicitly linked this move to the perception that special interests have excessive influence in Washington. "For millions of Americans, the earmark process in Congress has become a symbol of a broken Washington," he said in a statement.

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But even with both parties taking actions against earmarks, there are a few reasons why pork barrel spending will continue in many forms.

1. Every member of the House and senator could agree to never put an earmark in another bill, but billions of dollars' worth of projects for special interests could continue. That's because there are many provisions in large spending bills that resemble earmarks, but Congress does not define them as such. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit taxpayer watchdog group in Washington, estimates that there were about 91 provisions worth about $5.9 billion in fiscal year 2010 alone that TCS considers earmarks but Congress does not. For example, in the fiscal year 2010 defense spending bill, there was $2.5 billion to build 10 C-17 Globemaster Strategic Airlift Aircraft, despite the fact that the Defense Department said the 205 C-17's it already has are sufficient. This spending is not considered an earmark by Congress, and thus would not be affected by either the Democratic or Republican earmark reform. "They've decided that it's not an earmark, even though it walks like an earmark and talks like an earmark," says Steve Ellis, vice president of TCS.

2. As the majority in Congress, Democrats have the most influence over earmarks at the moment. They have decided not to allow earmarks "directed to for-profit entities." But evidence suggests that this move affects only a small minority of earmarks. It can be difficult to find out which percentage of earmarks are for private interests and which fund nonprofit groups or state and local governments. Finding out which is which is time-consuming. It requires combing through the sometimes thousands of earmarks in a given bill because "Congress doesn't tell you right off the bat who the beneficiary [of an earmark] is," says Ellis. According to Representative Obey's announcement, the new earmark reform would have affected about 1,000 earmarks for 2010 had it been enacted last year. But according to TCS, there were about 9,000 earmarks in fiscal year 2010. Citizens Against Government Waste, another watchdog group, counts 10,160 earmarks, of which the Democratic reform affects only 10 percent.

Furthermore, some of the earmarks that critics have cited as particularly wasteful are directed to public entities, not private companies. For example, last year, a federal spending bill set aside $1.7 million for pig odor research at a Department of Agriculture facility in Iowa.