Self-imposed Republican moratorium leads to drop in 2011 earmark spending

Earmarks are way down in the 2011 spending bills being drafted in the House, thanks to new restrictions that lawmakers imposed on themselves.

The amount of earmarked money is down by roughly 40 percent in three 2011 appropriations bills in the House compared to last year’s bills, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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Three of the bills drafted by the committee so far this year included $740 million in earmarks, the provisions lawmakers insert in spending bills to steer money to specific projects.

The 2010 versions of the bills funding military construction and the departments of Veterans Affairs, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Homeland Security included $1.27 billion in earmarks. A total of $10 billion in disclosd earmarks were included in all spending bills for 2010.

Both parties enacted policies to reduce earmarks, but Taxpayers for Common Sense say much of the decline is due to the House Republicans’ one-year moratorium on earmarks. All but three of the 178 House GOP members have agreed to refrain from earmarking this year.

Republicans, including members of the Appropriations Committee who have earmarked in the past, said limiting earmarks bolsters their argument that spending should be cut to reduce the federal deficit, which is expected to reach $1.5 trillion this year.

Because they have agreed to the moratorium, the GOP can “answer the question in 10 seconds” and move on to talk about the big-picture problem of the deficit, said Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), a senior GOP appropriator. “It gives us a lot more credibility on fiscal restraint,” he said.

House Democrats have also reduced their earmarking — by about 4 percent — in the three bills that Taxpayers for Common Sense analyzed. 

Democrats this year instituted a permanent ban on all earmarks that go to for-profit companies in order to limit the abuse of taxpayer funds.

The effect of that ban is expected to be seen largely in the Defense spending bill, which has traditionally had the bulk of for-profit earmarks. The 2010 appropriations bills had about $1.7 billion in for-profit earmarks, according to the House Appropriations Committee.

Lawmakers have sought to crack down on earmarking as worries have grown over the $13 trillion debt. Earmark critics such as Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) warn that the practice is wasteful at best and corrupt at worst. Nearly nine in 10 people who have tried the nonpartisan Center for Responsible Federal Budget’s online budget-balancing simulator said earmarks should be eliminated.  

Earmarks, however, make up only a tiny portion of the federal budget. GOP and Democratic appropriators note that earmarks make up less than 1 percent of federal discretionary spending, which is nearly $1.4 trillion this year.

“[Reducing earmarks] doesn't save a whole lot of money, but I guess it satisfied the public thirst to beat up on the Congress,” said Rep. Jim Moran (Va.), a senior Democratic appropriator.

Appropriators, who tend to be the biggest earmarkers, have defended Congress' privilege to send money to certain projects, such as new schools, water treatment systems and weapons systems. Those lawmakers argue that they know their constituents' needs better than the executive branch, which has the vast control over taxpayer funds.

It’s unclear whether the House's earmark reductions will stick. The Senate hasn’t committed to the House’s new restrictions, and the House GOP moratorium expires after this year. 

Republican appropriators have said they would like to have future earmark reforms yet still have the ability to win money for their districts in the future.

“I think right now we're okay [with an earmark moratorium],” Kingston said. “In the long-term we would like to have earmark reform to the degree that it's transparent, justified and has scrutiny, but the Congress would still have the prerogative of spending money.”