No dip in earmark spending despite White House push for transparency

Transparency requirements pushed for by the Obama administration have not changed the total spending on earmarks for 2010, according to a study by a group critical of the practice.

The amount of money directed by lawmakers in 2010 to specific projects back in their districts adds up to $15.9 billion, according to the analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense,

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Earmarks in 2009 added up to a total of $19.9 billion. But that figure drops slightly below the 2010 total to $15.6 billion when taking out $1.8 billion included in an emergency war-spending bill, another $2.3 billion in earmarks for the Army Corps of Engineers operations and maintenance projects and roughly $200 million for earmarked disaster aid.

In 2010, lawmakers received fewer earmarks to pay for Army Corps of Engineers projects but overall funding didn't decrease. Taxpayers for Common Sense says the Obama administration included money for those projects in its budget request, a departure from the way the local projects were handled during the Bush administration.  

“High levels of special interest spending remain and powerful lawmakers are hoarding cash for their districts while the rest of the Congress fights for table scraps," said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"Spending should be a meritocracy," she added. "Instead of simply rewarding the constituents or campaign contributors of the politically powerful, our taxpayer dollars must be spent on only the most critical and important projects
nationwide.”

With Congress set to consider another emergency war-spending bill this year, the 2010 number could increase.

A White House spokesman said preliminary data shows progress in reducing earmark levels.

"This is a good step forward and Congress should be applauded, but there is more work to accomplish to restore the public trust," said Thomas Gavin, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Congress defines spending as an earmark if it goes toward a project at the formal request of a lawmaker. Most of the $1.4 trillion in 2010 discretionary spending is directed by executive branch agencies.

Appropriators, who review the president's budget requests and win more earmarked funds for their constituents than other lawmakers, have defended the earmarking process, noting earmarks account for less than 1 percent of the federal budget.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) have sought to make it easier for the public to review earmarks, requiring last year that all lawmakers post earmark requests on their official websites.

Obama, in his State of the Union address last month, called on lawmakers to go a step further by putting "all earmark requests on a single website before there’s a vote so that the American people can see how their money is being spent.”

As a presidential candidate, Obama called for cutting earmarks down to their 1994 levels, or about $8 billion. He has since called for a competitive bidding process for earmarks going to for-profit companies, a move that has been adopted by the House but not the Senate.