Donald Lambro
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WASHINGTON -- When Congress announced a ban on budget earmarks earlier this year, many believed that the wasteful spending practice had been killed once and for all.

Last February, Democrat Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, gave the eulogy. "The president has stated unequivocally that he will veto any legislation containing earmarks, and the House will not pass any bills that contain them. Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law."

Well, a new study suggests that doesn't seem to be the case.

It turns out that this corrupt, backdoor spending practice that has wasted untold billions on pet projects back home is alive and well, though apparently cloaked in procedural and application mumbo-jumbo to make it look legitimate.

A six-month investigation by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., discovered 115 earmarks in this year's defense authorization bill -- 40 of them from House Republicans (many of whom ran against earmarks) and 75 from House Democrats.

Another 31 earmarks were found, but apparently there was insufficient information to identify their congressional accomplices.

Among McCaskill's findings was a $2.5 million line item inserted into the House bill by Republican Rep. Robert T. Schilling, a freshman, for Quad City Manufacturing Lab at the Rock Island Arsenal in Rock Island, Ill. If all goes according to plan, the money will be used for the development of innovative manufacturing techniques and process for munitions and weapons systems.

Notably, the language used in Schilling's request matched the language that his Democratic predecessor used in previous earmarks.

But Schilling's aides maintain that what they added to the military authorization bill was not an earmark, but a request for funding that the lab would have to duly apply for under the government's usual contracting process.

Schilling, part of the wave of GOP conservatives who took control of the House in the midterm elections, wrote in a local website last year, 'We need earmark reform that improves transparency, roots out corruption and eliminates wasteful spending. My opponent never met an earmark he didn't like.'

McCaskill, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who's been one of President Obama's biggest supporters, doesn't have clean hands on this issue, either.

John Brunner, one of her Republican opponents in next year's election, accuses her of hypocrisy, and is running an online video attacking her for a $1.9 million earmark for the Pleasure Beach Water Taxi Service in Pleasure Beach, Conn.

The Pleasure Beach Water Taxi earmark was originally included in the fiscal year 2009 omnibus spending bill. But when senators offered an amendment to specifically eliminate the Pleasure Beach Water Taxi earmark, McCaskill specifically voted to keep it (Senate Amendment No. 610, 03/04/09), Brunner's video says.

While Claire McCaskill claims to oppose earmarks, her record is filled with support for thousands of earmarks, his video adds.

McCaskill is one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate, largely because of her blank-check support for Obama's agenda. Her report on earmarks, as welcome as it is, appears to be a clever defensive maneuver to counter charges she has supported them in the past.

Nevertheless, an independent budget watchdog group found similar earmark abuses, despite the so-called ban.

Citizens Against Government Waste has uncovered 111 earmark provisions tucked into spending bills employing the same legislative language used in previous earmarks.

And, as before, the defense budget remains one of the most abused targets, although these earmarks are called something else. In Congress, this is called 'reform.'

Maj. Gen. Lori Robinson, legislative liaison at the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, told a forum at the Brookings Institution in March that earmarks were making a comeback, according to an account of her remarks in the Inside the Air Force newsletter.

'I haven't seen anything in writing and I don't know anything official, but I am hearing that it'll be called something different,' the newsletter reported her saying. 'And I forget what the word is, but I do believe that we will have an earmark by a different name.'

That appears to be what is going on now in both houses of Congress at a time when annual government spending has ballooned to nearly $4 trillion, the yearly budget deficit is $1.3 trillion, and the government's gross national debt is $15 trillion and climbing.

The earmark explosion over the past two decades has been one of the most shameful periods in the history of Congress. Lawmakers were allowed to insert unlimited spending items into appropriations bills to steer tax dollars to their states and districts.

They are using the yearly appropriations process as if it were their own personal checkbook to pay off special interests back home in return for support at re-election time.

The earmarks ran the gamut from $100,000 for an Iowa district to measure methane gas from pig flatus to determine its effect on greenhouse gases, to a $4.8 million payoff to the well-heeled lumber industry to study wood utilization in 11 states.

Gallup said Tuesday that three-fourths of the registered voters it polled say most members of Congress do not deserve re-election, the highest percentage Gallup has measured in its 19-year history of asking this question.

The day of reckoning is coming.

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Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.