WASHINGTON - The number and overall cost of congressional pet projects added to the national defense budget are both down sharply, in the first appropriations season since Congress moved to require members to attach their names to so-called earmarks in spending bills.
The $459 billion military budget approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this month, the largest annual federal spending bill, included 1,006 earmarks, a decrease from the 2,644 contained in last year's bill. If enacted, the earmarks would cost a total of $8.2 billion, down from $10.5 billion last year.
An analysis of other spending bills pending before Congress this fall for expenditures in 2008 shows that the effort to reduce earmarks appears to be working. The number of earmarks in the transportation, housing, and agriculture budgets is down from the last budgets approved under the previous Congress, which was led by Republicans. Democrats had made controlling earmarks a prime focus of their 2006 campaign.
But budget watchdog groups are holding their applause for now. None of the budgets have been finalized, and the number of earmarks could still rise when the Senate and the House meet to hammer out final versions. And even with the policy changes in place that require lawmakers to attach their names to spending requests, budget analysts said, thousands of projects ranging from shark research in Florida to a minor league baseball stadium in Montana remain in the spending bills.
"It still remains challenging to get rid of earmarks, and there's not enough outrage nationally to force members to cut back," said Thomas Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan group that publishes an annual index of "pork" spending. The policy changes, he said, have not "shamed members into dropping earmarks altogether, unfortunately."
Earmarks stirred public outrage in the 2006 election after several scandals involving Republican lawmakers who inserted projects into spending bills at the behest of lobbyists. After taking control of Congress, Democrats instituted a temporary freeze on the practice and introduced the new ethics rules.
But those changes fell well short of the total ban on earmarks advocated by watchdog groups. As a result, they say, lawmakers from both parties have loaded the defense, transportation, and energy appropriations bills with spending for home state businesses, schools, and museums.
For example, both defense appropriation bills include an order to buy merino wool socks from Cabot Hosiery of Northfield, Vt. The Senate bill would guarantee $2 million, while the House legislation contains only $1 million for the socks. Both Vermont senators and the state's single House representative backed the request.
Earmarks also remain in virtually every other category of the budget. In the spending bill that covers the Departments of Commerce and Justice and federal science programs, a bipartisan group of Florida representatives ask for a $600,000 grant to research sharks. In the same bill, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst would get $750,000 for a "large millimeter telescope" requested by Representative John W. Olver, Democrat of Amherst, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.
In the budget bill covering the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services drafted by the House, Representative Emanuel Cleaver, Democrat of Missouri, seeks $200,000 for the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. The South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston would get $150,000, courtesy of Representative Henry Brown, Republican of South Carolina.
Earmarks instruct federal agencies on how to spend their appropriations and often fund projects that would not otherwise meet the criteria for government support. Critics say the practice invites corruption and even aboveboard earmarks divert money from more worthy projects.
Many lawmakers defend earmarks, however, on the grounds that they understand the needs of their districts better than federal bureaucrats. Only a handful of legislators, including Senators Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma; Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina; Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin; John McCain, Republican of Arizona; and Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, declined earmarks this year.
After the 2006 elections, Representative David Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin and the House Appropriations Committee chairman, vowed to cut earmarks by half in the House draft of this year's budget bills. That has mostly happened, say budget analysts: There are thousands fewer in the House bills than there were under the Republicans.
But some of those cuts may never become law. Senator Robert F. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and one of the most prolific earmarkers in congressional history, declined to make a similar pledge, and the Senate budgets approved by his committee contain more earmarks in almost all spending categories than in the House.
Budget analysts said that when the House and Senate meet in conference to negotiate a final version of the appropriations bills, the Senate versions are more likely to prevail.
For example, the budget for the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, traditionally two of the biggest vehicles for earmarks, contained $2.2 billion in member-sponsored projects in the House version and $2.6 billion in the Senate bill passed earlier this month, according to budget analyses by the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Earmarks in the Senate's transportation appropriation included $3 million for a volcano monitoring center in Alaska, requested by Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska. The earmark was included in the transportation appropriation on the grounds that monitoring volcanoes is "critical to the safety of Alaskans and international air travelers."
Senator Bernard Sanders, an independent of Vermont and self-described socialist, inserted $250,000 in the bill for a visitor's center at the Calvin Coolidge museum in Plymouth Notch, Vt., a museum that honors a president famous for his reluctance to spend federal funds.
The transportation projects in particular attracted the ire of earmark foes, who alleged that money intended for bridges and tunnels was being spent on pet projects instead of critical infrastructure upgrades. After the collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis in August exposed the crumbling state of many highways, they said, it was urgent to spend money on the thousands of bridges on interstates that have been deemed structurally deficient.
Coburn, one of the leading congressional opponents of earmarks, released a report by the inspector general of the Transportation Department showing high-priority airport repairs had been delayed up to three years because of congressional instructions to spend money on lower priority projects that would not have qualified.
Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington and chairwoman of the transportation appropriations subcommittee in the Senate, defended the spending bill and said the committee had added $1 billion for bridge repairs.
Once the House and Senate agree on final versions of the spending bills, they will go to President Bush for his signature. After signing earmark-heavy spending bills passed by his fellow Republicans when they controlled Congress, Bush has had a change of heart this year and vowed to reject the Transportation appropriation legislation if the House and Senate conference does not cut back on spending in the bill.
Separately, House Republicans announced Thursday that they would try to seize the upper hand on earmark policy change by seeking a vote on a bill that would expand the disclosure requirements.
"We've had our own blemishes over the years," said Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri and minority whip.
"We're desperately trying to recoup on this front and move aggressively. We're asking them to finish the job that they've started."