At a time when the federal budget tops $3 trillion, it's easy to see why some regard earmarks, which account for an estimated 1 percent of spending, as insignificant.
But calls on Capitol Hill to rein in earmark spending may get increasingly hard to ignore. President Obama has asked Congress to restrain earmarks, and Democrats and Republicans alike are pushing bills, resolutions and investigations aimed at curbing abuses.
Fanning the anti-earmark fires are scandals involving Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. The chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Murtha is now associated with so many pay-to-play allegations that it's getting hard to keep up. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has even launched a Web site, You Don't Know Jack, to help out. Murtha-related controversies include:
• Federal investigations into the PMA Group, a now-defunct defense lobbying firm, and Kuchera Corp., a defense contractor in Murtha's district. The FBI has raided the offices of both firms, which have close ties to Murtha. A widening federal probe is reportedly investigating Murtha's links to lobbyists and defense contractors who have received funds earmarked by Murtha and who have donated generously to his campaign.
• Calls to shut down the National Drug Intelligence Center, a counter-narcotics center in Murtha's home district. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., recently asked the Justice Department to explain plans for a costly name change at the center. Coburn and other Republicans have long tried to strip out federal funds that Murtha earmarked for the center, which they call a costly boondoggle.
• A federal probe -- recently disclosed by the Washington Post -- of earmarks that Murtha steered to another company in his district, Mountaintop Technologies, ostensibly for law enforcement work. The company is a defense contractor with little police work experience.
Murtha has denied any wrongdoing, as have the many firms and contractors allegedly under investigation. But Republicans are doing their best to capitalize on the scandals, which have the potential to entangle other Democrats.
Four watchdog groups have asked the House ethics committee to investigate whether any lawmakers were improperly influenced by campaign contributions from the PMA Group. Those calling for the probe -- Democracy 21, Common Cause, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG -- questioned the firm's dealings with not just Murtha but with Reps. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., and Jim Moran, D-Va. Visclosky acknowledged last week (subscription) that he and members of his staff have received federal grand jury subpoenas in the PMA probe.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., the House's leading earmarks foe, has introduced eight privileged resolutions this year calling for the ethics committee to investigate earmarks abuses by PMA and in general. Flake's first such resolution, in February, drew only 17 Democrats, but his most recent one -- introduced on May 12 -- won 29 Democratic votes.
"It's been a pretty steady increase in the number of Democrats that have supported it," said Flake spokesman Matthew Specht. "The PMA scandal doesn't seem to be going away."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has reportedly enlisted ex-ethics committee chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif., to discourage freshman Democrats from backing the Flake resolutions.
But some junior Democrats are pushing their own anti-earmarks agenda. A handful who have signed on to Flake's resolutions -- sophomore Reps. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., and Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and freshman Tom Perriello, D-Va., have introduced a bill (H.R. 2038) that would ban lawmakers from accepting campaign contributions from companies for whom they've requested earmarks.
It's one of several earmarks-related bills introduced in this Congress in both the House and the Senate, many of them solidly bipartisan. In the Senate, two separate bills reining in earmarks and giving the President line-item veto power have the backing of Democrats Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, as well as of Republicans Coburn and John McCain of Arizona.
In the House, Flake's most recent piece of earmarks legislation -- H.R. 2512, which would ban lawmakers from awarding earmarks to for-profit entities -- was co-sponsored by four Democrats and four Republicans, including Flake.
When asked about earmarks, Pelosi tends to stress the changes brought about by the sweeping lobbying and ethics overhaul enacted in 2007, which included disclosure requirements for approved earmarks. In this Congress, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., and Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, announced that they would go one step further, requiring all lawmakers to post on their Web sites the earmarks that they request.
These latest postings move the ball forward, said Taxpayers for Common Sense Vice President Steve Ellis, but the disclosures are far from comprehensive. For one thing, anyone seeking information has to go to 535 different Web sites, where some lawmakers make the information easier to find than others.
For all the efforts at transparency, the catalyst for earmarks changes invariably ends up being scandals like the ones plaguing Murtha, Ellis noted: "That all amps up attention on earmarks, and on the issue."