Seven minutes into his final State of the Union address, President Bush declared war on earmarks. It took him seven years and came after significant expense to taxpayers, but it was a sign that official Washington might finally be waking up to the problems of pork-barrel politics.
“The people’s trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks -- special interest projects that are often snuck in at the last minute, without discussion or debate,” Bush said. “Last year, I asked you [Congress] to voluntarily cut the number and cost of earmarks in half. I also asked you to stop slipping earmarks into committee reports that never even come to a vote. Unfortunately, neither goal was met. So this time, if you send me an appropriations bill that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half, I’ll send it back to you with my veto.”
The president’s primetime speech was the perfect moment to draw attention to earmarks. It came only a few days after House Republicans challenged their Democrat colleagues to impose an immediate moratorium on earmarks and asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi to appoint a joint committee to reform the earmarking process. In the Senate, Republicans set up a Fiscal Reform Working Group to examine the earmark problem.
Individually, these maneuvers might not be all that significant. But when considered collectively, they represent a realization by lawmakers that earmarks have become a political embarrassment, not a political plus. Pork-barrel projects are now synonymous with corruption, favoritism and greed.
It wasn’t always that way. Earmarks steadily increased throughout Bush’s first term, reaching an all-time high of 13,997 in 2005. But they really began making front-page headlines in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A coalition known as Porkbusters, started by bloggers N.Z. Bear and Glenn Reynolds, organized an effort to track members of Congress who promised to cut their own pork projects to help offset the cost of the disaster relief effort.
The attention led to some embarrassing discoveries, none more notable than the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska. Republican Sen. Ted Stevens grew so angry at the suggestion the bridge might lose funding that he threatened to quit Congress. America took notice.