Watchdogs fear rise of backdoor earmarking in the next Congress

Leading government-waste watchdogs say they are increasingly worried that 2011 will be the year of backdoor earmarking through congressional letters and phone calls to federal agencies. 

Watchdogs contacted by The Hill on Tuesday said that so-called "lettermarking" and "phonemarking" could eclipse earmarking as the top concern of groups that monitor government spending.

House and Senate Republicans have adopted a voluntary moratorium on earmarks for the next Congress, which could result in earmark-free appropriations bills next year. Senate Democrats have not banned the practice, but the new GOP majority in the House will vigorously oppose earmark-filled spending bills crafted by the upper chamber.

But spending watchdogs say the earmark moratorium won't stop lawmakers from trying to direct funding to their districts. Lawmakers may use the power of their office to pressure federal agencies to steer existing funding to their preferred pet projects by lobbying officials with phone calls and letters.

“Earmarkers are still earmarkers in Congress, and they are going to still try to find a way to spend money,” said David Williams, vice president of policy at Citizens Against Government Waste. “This may become the new way to earmark, the new pork.”

“With the earmark moratorium, it is like squeezing a balloon — the pressure just shifts to lettermarking and earmarking,” said Steve Ellis of the Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Citizens Against Government Waste and Taxpayers for Common Sense are calling on House Republicans to adopt an amendment to its rule proposals on Jan. 4 that would require members to publish the letters they send to agencies on behalf of pet projects. 

As of now, evidence of lettermarking can only be obtained through time-consuming requests under the Freedom of Information Act. 


Citizens Against Government Waste plans to work with long-time earmark opponents such as Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to shed light on the rising potential for backdoor pork-barrel spending.  

Williams said his group is anxious to see how the new House GOP majority will tackle spending cuts early on next year. A proposed GOP House rule to include spending accounts in each appropriation bill could be used to generate savings, but it remains to be seen how effective it will be, he said.

The House GOP has proposed the spending accounts, but it is up to the individual appropriator proposing a cut to designate savings to go into the locked account. The funds in the account cannot be used by other members to pay for new spending. The GOP rules, on which the full House will vote Jan. 5, would mandate a full reading of the Constitution on Jan. 6.

“We don’t need gimmicks,” Williams said. "What is going happen after the reading of the Constitution?”