WASHINGTON — Before they took control of Congress nearly nine years ago, Republicans often mocked the Democratic practice of larding government spending bills with provisions that earmarked funds for pet projects in particular lawmakers' districts and states.
But a $328.1-billion bill that the Republican-led House expects to pass today, funding a grab bag of government agencies, takes earmarking to greater heights and uses it for what Democrats claim are new, partisan purposes.
The bill includes an eye-popping number of earmarks -- around 7,000 by one estimate, at a cost of several billion dollars. Other spending bills bring the grand total for the year to more than 10,000. In that long list are items big and small, from $100,000 for street furniture and sidewalks in Laverne, Ala., to $44 million for a bridge to Treasure Island in Florida -- a plum for the Tampa Bay district of House Appropriations Chairman C.W. "Bill" Young.
But more than that, to a degree unseen since their 1995 takeover, the majority Republicans are publicly flaunting their power to use pork for explicitly partisan purposes.
Traditionally, the dominant party oils the legislative machinery by setting aside a healthy fraction of earmarked funds for the minority. This year, in a key section of the spending bill, the Republicans got stingy.
They were irate when House Democrats voted en masse in July against their version of the annual spending bill for the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments. As punishment, in the labor, health and education provisions of the pending bill, they are denying Democrats the customary minority share of what are euphemistically known on Capitol Hill as "member projects."
Increasingly, Republican critics such as Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona are isolated voices when they criticize their own party for outdoing the Democrats in the lavishing of pork.
"Republicans ridiculed this forever, but now we're in and we see how much fun it is," Flake said. "There's no shame anymore." Among his favorites in the omnibus spending bill: $75,000 for a North Pole Transit System in Alaska, $200,000 for a program at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and $325,000 for a swimming pool in Salinas.
The authorship of some earmarks is easy to determine. Most Alaska items, for instance, are inserted into spending bills by Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, a Republican, to benefit his home state. The same is true for projects championed by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the committee's ranking Democrat, for his state, West Virginia. But a vast number of earmarks are harder to trace because the legislative language does not identify who suggested them. The House and Senate committees keep the origins of earmarks confidential. Some lawmakers issue press releases to trumpet their handiwork; many don't.
Earmarking is as old as Congress, and Republicans, no less than Democrats, jealously protect their prerogative. Many Republicans bitterly complained when Bush's first budget chief, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., lampooned earmarks. In one budget document, Daniels included a drawing of Gulliver (the Bush administration) pinned down by a thousand ropes from Lilliputians (congressional regulators).
Now Daniels is gone. And while Bush has insisted this year on holding Congress to a mutually agreed-on cap on its regular spending bill, he has not threatened a veto over earmarks.
Congressional Republicans are relieved the administration has backed off.
Lawmakers "have a better understanding of the needs of their districts than some bean counters" in Washington, said John Scofield, spokesman for House Republican appropriators. He added: "Even if you eliminated earmarks altogether, it would make barely a dent in the federal deficit" -- this year estimated at $480 billion.
This is from the same party that, after winning the House of Representatives in 1994, pledged to reform how spending bills were written after five decades of Democratic rule. The 1994 GOP platform known as the "Contract with America" even proposed a presidential line-item veto to rein in what Republicans called "wasteful pork-barrel spending."
Former Rep. Newt Gingrich, House speaker from 1995 to 1999, had pledged in 1992: "I am committed to hunting down every appropriation that we can find that is some politician taking care of himself." About the same time, other House Republicans said that "the American people are tired of paying tax dollars for congressional pork" and "a pig is a pig even if he lives at home."