These are dark days for earmarks.
Packing bills with special provisions has long been an honored tradition in Congress, but now a pall has fallen over the practice. Bolstered by a budget crisis and a series of scandals involving legislative favors, an increasingly prolific government watchdog movement is turning "pork" into a four-letter word.
These scrappy outfits are run by small corps of veteran staffers whose offices look more like dorm rooms than the posh K Street suites occupied by their archnemeses: lobbyists. Taxpayers for Common Sense elevated an obscure Alaska highway project into the now-infamous "Bridge to Nowhere." Citizens Against Government Waste started battling runaway Hurricane Katrina spending three days after the storm hit the Gulf Coast.
The two groups joined forces this month with the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative, low-tax organization, to combat the rising cost of the new D.C. baseball stadium. Other watchdog targets include indicted former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), the Pentagon and the U.S. Postal Service.
‘Porkbusters’ find a friend in Washington
The watchdogs work closely with friendly lawmakers, such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who tried to redirect funding for the "Bridge to Nowhere" to a New Orleans bridge ruined by Hurricane Katrina. The informal investigative alliance also includes Internet bloggers, including a "porkbusters" campaign on the site truthlaidbear.com, an online effort to mobilize against wasteful federal spending.
"It's a $2.4 trillion budget," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "There's work for everybody."
Congress is embarrassed enough by the Cunningham and Jack Abramoff scandals, both involving huge sums of cash for legislative favors, that lawmakers are considering ways to crack down on earmarks, which typically show up in bills at the last minute, after little or no scrutiny. The watchdog groups are wary that Congress will wind up focusing on lobbying-related activities, rather than cleaning up the legislative process.
"We hope that there's a recognition that it's not just lobbying," said Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. "It's more a matter of how the whole process works."
Although Republicans claim to be the party of small government and fiscal restraint, Schatz's group found that total earmarks rose to 13,997 in 2005, a huge increase from the 1995 total of 1,349. The process appears to have slowed with the fiscal 2006 appropriations bills, with the exception of the defense measure, which preliminary analysis by the groups suggests is the usual earmark treasure trove.
Coburn, one of the Senate's toughest earmark critics, attributed the watchdog movement's growing influence to a decline in congressional oversight. What he calls "an army of citizen investigators" is "filling an oversight gap created by Congress's refusal to perform one of its core responsibilities," Coburn said.
Keepers of the Golden Fleece award
Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) noted that Senate rules already allow senators to attempt to strike provisions from bills -- as Coburn tried with his "Bridge to Nowhere" amendment. And while there may be earmarking excesses, Cochran added, the practice is entwined with one of the most sacrosanct of Congress's duties: deciding how federal money is spent.
"It serves a useful purpose for people to point out things," said Cochran, referring to the watchdog groups. But he added, "I think senators would be reluctant to approve a law that says you can't have any specific project appropriated in a bill."
The movement's ideological roots range from liberal to libertarian. Taxpayers for Common Sense, created 10 years ago, regards the late former senator William Proxmire (D-Wis.) as its spiritual leader and has taken over his Golden Fleece Award, created in 1975 to highlight wasteful projects. Proxmire gave the National Science Foundation the first Golden Fleece, for spending $84,000 to study why people fall in love.
Citizens Against Government Waste was founded in 1984 by the industrialist J. Peter Grace and the syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, now both deceased. It is also the legacy of President Ronald Reagan's "Private Sector Survey on Cost Control," directed in 1982 to "work like tireless bloodhounds to root out government inefficiency and waste of tax dollars." Other groups include the National Taxpayers Union, founded in 1969, which has already set its sights on the farm bill that expires in 2007.
‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’
The groups' bread and butter are the vast databases they compile that break down earmarks by state or individual lawmaker. They also rely on tips.
About five years ago, an Alaska environmentalist contacted Keith Ashdown at Taxpayers for Common Sense about a proposal for a massive bridge that would have linked the town of Ketchikan to the more sparsely populated Gravina Island. The group spent more than a year examining the project and awarded it a Golden Fleece on June 12, 2003.
Even Ashdown was surprised when the final highway authorization bill emerged last summer with a whopping $223 million for the Ketchikan bridge. At most, he had expected a few million dollars.
The bridge attracted a blizzard of adverse publicity, and later last year, Congress redirected the money to allow Alaska to spend it on other transportation projects. Ashdown, meanwhile, has moved on to a new project.
He heard about this one from a Gulf Coast resident. According to the e-mail he received, Mississippi wants to spend more than $200 million to repair the U.S. 90 Biloxi Bay Bridge, which was damaged last summer by Hurricane Katrina.
But the bridge could be obsolete before it is finished, the tipster warned, pending the outcome of a debate over relocating the highway. Ashdown is looking into the project and already has a name for it: the "Bridge Over Troubled Waters."