$11 billion in disclosed earmarks expected in fiscal year 2010

$11 billion in disclosed earmarks expected in fiscal year 2010

Congress is on pace to spend $11 billion on disclosed earmarks in fiscal year 2010, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

That’s about $4 billion less than last year’s cost of earmarks, which fund projects at the specific request of lawmakers. Disclosed earmarks totaled nearly $15 billion in fiscal year 2009, the groups said.


“The total disclosed earmarks, in both number and dollar amount, will be slightly down -- a trim or even a haircut -- [from] what they were in fiscal year 2009,” said Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Democratic lawmakers are hailing the reduction.

“This Congress has reformed the earmark process -- requiring public disclosure and much more transparency -- and we’re on course to have cut the amount earmarked in half from the 2006 level for non-project-based accounts,” said Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.).

Some of the decrease could be an illusion.

Congressional earmark funding fell partly because of a change in the way earmarks for the Army Corps of Engineers operations and maintenance projects were classified.

In 2009, about $2 billion in earmarks for those projects were treated as congressional earmarks. In the 2010 spending bills, most of the funding for those projects were classified as presidential earmarks and not counted as lawmaker earmarks. The accounting changed because the Obama administration included requests for the projects' funding in its budget proposal.

Ellis also noted that some earmarked spending goes undisclosed because it doesn't fall under Congress's definition of an earmark.

Congress only defines spending as an earmark if a project is added to an appropriations bill at the formal request of a lawmaker or the president.

But lawmakers can still steer money toward a favored project instead of allowing an executive branch agency to decide where money should go.

For instance, a number of new community-based outpatient clinics to be funded in the Department of Veterans Affairs spending bill will go to districts for lawmakers on the House Appropriations subcommittee that wrote the bill.

Ellis said the culture of steering taxpayer dollars to win votes hasn't changed. Just last month, Democratic Senate leaders secured the support for Sen. Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuCassidy wins reelection in Louisiana Bottom line A decade of making a difference: Senate Caucus on Foster Youth MORE (D-La.) for a key procedural vote on the healthcare bill by agreeing to send $300 million in disaster aid to her state, he noted.

Earmark critics in Congress such as Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster Heatwaves don't lie: Telling the truth about climate change Overnight Energy: Lake Mead's decline points to scary water future in West | White House leads opposition to raising gas tax | Biden taps ex-New Mexico lawmaker for USDA post MORE (R-Ariz.), Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeOn The Trail: Arizona is microcosm of battle for the GOP Trump looms large over fractured Arizona GOP Why Republican politicians are sticking with Trump MORE (R-Ariz.) have decried the practice of earmarks, arguing that it leads to an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars and can end up benefiting campaign donors. Earmarked funding also doesn't get publicly scrutinized during committee hearings like most funding requests

"I think it's really remarkable and unacceptable that the Senate is willing to approve expenditure of such huge sums without the opportunity to debate and amend their content," McCain said Friday in a floor speech criticizing the $3.9 billion in earmarks in the omnibus spending bill.

McCain's office highlighted a number of earmarks in the omnibus that he considered wasteful, including $600,000 for a water storage tower construction in Ada, Okla., which has about 16,000 residents; $30,000 for the Woodstock Film Festival Youth Initiative; and $750,000 for the design and fabrication of exhibits in the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in Des Moines, Iowa.

Taxpayers for Common Sense estimated the cost of earmarks in the dozen 2010 spending bills to be $11.3 billion.

The four 2010 spending bills already signed into law include $2.1 billion in earmarks.

The omnibus package of six more spending bills, passed by the House Thursday and expected to win Senate approval this weekend, includes another $3.9 billion in earmarks.

Congress plans to take up the last annual spending bill for 2010, the Defense appropriations bill, next week. It is expected to include about $5.31 billion in earmarks.

About $2.66 billion in earmarks was included in the House version of the bill and another $2.65 billion was included in the Senate version. Both chambers plan to pass the final version of the Defense bill before they leave for the holiday break.

Appropriators, including Obey and Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) have defended their right to earmark, saying that they should be able to directly fund projects to help their constituents and that the executive branch shouldn't be the only ones who get to make the final decisions where all federal money ends up.

"Earmarks represent less than 1 percent of the federal budget, and they don't add a dime to it - they are simply a way for Congress to direct funding that would otherwise be directed by administration officials," said Brachman, Obey's spokesman.