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.
Appropriators and pork-loving politicians have been paying the price for their largess ever since. The anger that swept many politicians out of office in 2006 hasn’t subsided. That’s one of the reasons politicians in Washington are finally starting to talk seriously about curtailing their own pork projects.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, who swore off earmarks after taking office in 1992, emerged from the Republican retreat in West Virginia with a challenge from his caucus to Democrats: Give up earmarks. It wasn’t an easy commitment for Boehner to get from his GOP colleagues, many of whom have grown addicted to pork and don’t understand the hostility toward earmarks.
Pelosi, who volunteered to give back $70 million worth of earmarks following Katrina in 2005, ridiculed Republicans for their proposal. Just two years ago, however, Pelosi led the charge for Democrats against earmarks, calling them part of the “culture of corruption.”
Even if Democrats don’t respond in kind to the GOP’s offer, nearly 20 House Republicans have already volunteered to swear off pork projects. Six senators, including two Democrats, have vowed to do the same.
Boehner’s counterpart in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, an appropriator who boasts of the federal dollars he’s delivered for Kentucky, surprised many conservatives when he appointed a group to study the earmarking process. While the group includes some notorious porkers, such as Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, it also includes Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a man who has fought countless battles over wasteful spending and isn’t intimidated by appropriators.
These congressional actions were bolstered by Bush, who followed up his State of the Union talk with an executive order directing federal agencies to ignore any future earmark that is not voted on by Congress.
Theses steps don’t go nearly as far as many taxpayer watchdogs desire. They wanted all congressional Republicans to give up earmarks regardless of what Democrats do. And they were disappointed Bush didn’t cancel the nearly 10,000 pork-barrel projects included in the mammoth omnibus spending bill approved in December. By targeting only future earmarks, the Democrat-led Congress could simply put off action on appropriations bills until a new president is sworn in to office.
But change comes slowly to Washington, and these baby steps are important developments. That’s how Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds, father of Porkbusters, sees it.
“[B]ack in 2005 when Porkbusters started, nobody in Washington cared and members of Congress were bragging about pork,” Reynolds wrote. “Now the State of the Union leads of with an attack on earmarks, to thundering applause. Yeah, a lot of it’s a sham. But hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, and this kind of hypocrisy indicates that the anti-earmark momentum is growing.”
Porkbusters still have a long way to go before they’ll see fundamental changes in the way Washington spends taxpayers’ money. But if the events of the last week are any indication, that change is much closer to becoming reality than it was just a few years ago.