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Pork Barrel Pride

August 5, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

The Democrats’ new rules for earmarks haven’t put an end to pork barrel spending, but hopefully they have eliminated the worst parts. When they took over Congress in January, Democrats changed the rules so that lawmakers would have to attach their names to any chunk of federal money that they wanted set aside for their pet projects. This kind of congressional spending, known as earmarking, snowballed under Republicans’ ten years of control; there was a steady increase from about 3,000 earmarks in 1996 to almost 16,000 in 2005. During those years, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle must have become
pretty comfortable with the practice because rather than being too embarrassed to own up to their earmarks under the new rules, they are proud to finally be able to associate with their pork:

>Eight months after Democrats vowed to shine light on the dark art of “earmarking” money for pet projects, many lawmakers say the new visibility has only intensified the competition for projects by letting each member see exactly how many everyone else is receiving.
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>So far this year, House lawmakers have put together spending bills that include almost 6,500 earmarks for almost $11 billion in local projects, only half of which the Bush administration supported.
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>The earmark frenzy hit fever pitch in recent days, even as the Senate passed new rules that allow more public scrutiny of them.
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>Far from causing embarrassment, the new transparency has raised the value of earmarks as a measure of members’ clout. Indeed, lawmakers have often competed to have their names attached to individual earmarks and rushed to put out press releases claiming credit for the money they bring home.
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>The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has obtained about $63 million worth of projects, most of them in or near her district in San Francisco. But Ms. Pelosi was overshadowed by Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, who obtained $163 million in pet projects — more than anyone else in Congress and more than his own previous record of about $100 million.
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>To be sure, the Democratic totals are less than half the record set by Republicans when they controlled Congress in 2005, but they are far higher than the levels just 10 years ago.

Earmarks can be used to good ends. The common argument in favor of earmarking is that the individual lawmakers are best informed as to what projects in their district and state are the most in need of funding. But often, earmarks are used for the narrow benefit of a politician’s career. They are handed out as favors to individuals, businesses, and interest groups by lawmakers in exchange for donations to their re-election campaign. Hopefully, the new disclosure requirements will help to put an end to this favor factory. While constituents may be happy to see that their representative was able to secure millions of dollars for their district, they won’t be nearly as excited to see evidence of their tax dollars being pumped into the pipeline of pure politics.

P.S. Paul Blumenthal of the Sunlight Foundation points out the most important lesson to be learned here: “Transparency, openness, and greater voter knowledge and access to the governing process in Washington are net benefits to members of Congress.”

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