Given voter disgust with both Congress and federal deficits, it's remarkable how unabashedly some lawmakers have jumped in to defend the increasingly controversial budget line items known as earmarks.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., was so upset over GOP pressure to rein in earmarks that he took to the Senate floor this month to champion lawmakers' right to insert pet projects into appropriations bills. "I'm not willing to cede every spending decision to the executive branch," declared Cochran, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, has been equally candid in brushing off his colleagues' anti-earmarks crusade. He called the House Appropriations Committee's March 10 decision to ban earmarks directed at for-profit companies "quizzical" and nonsensical.
The danger for Democrats is that Republicans pre-empt them on ethics issues that increasingly resonate with swing voters.
House Republicans have gone the furthest to stamp out earmarks, but even they seem to be having second thoughts. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, "plans to barrel through" the House GOP Conference's recent one-year moratorium on all earmark requests, the Anchorage Daily News reported on March 23. "We will be submitting requests as we always have," Young's spokeswoman told the paper.
Never mind that these lawmakers have a point: Earmarks represent a tiny fraction of the federal budget, and underwrite often valuable road improvement, social services, university research and military construction projects.
But the earmarks debate isn't about logic. It's about perception. And to voters fed up with special deals and corporate money in Washington, earmarks look bad.
They look particularly bad to anyone leafing through the thousands of pages of findings released last month by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which looked into earmarks requested by roughly a half-dozen House members who received campaign donations from the PMA Group, a now-defunct lobbying firm. The FBI is investigating the firm's earmarks-related dealings.
Among the OCE's supporting documents: an e-mail to the employees of one defense contractor from the company's PAC treasurer, bragging that the CEO's two-hour dinner with defense appropriator Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., and two of his top aides, "would not have been possible without your generous contributions to the member and the company's PAC."
In other documents released by the OCE, PMA clients discuss campaign contributions to Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., in the same breath as earmarks that Tiahrt authored. One lobbyist's e-mail states: "Here's a PAC request for Cong. Tiahrt. We have an office in his district, Wichita, and he is interested in supporting our effort to upgrade the Navy C-130s' flight data acquisition systems."
Both Visclosky and Tiahrt have denied any wrongdoing, and the House ethics committee last month rejected the OCE's recommendation that it investigate the two lawmakers. The OCE had also dismissed PMA-related allegations leveled at five other lawmakers.
But when reporters started combing through the OCE's eye-opening exhibits, House Democrats sensed trouble. The Appropriations Committee announced that it would not approve earmarks aimed at for-profit companies, and called on the federal inspectors general to audit 5 percent of the earmarks that go to nonprofits, which have increasingly acted as pass-through organizations for companies receiving earmarks.
It's not enough, of course. Nonprofit earmarks abuses are expected to increase, given the for-profit ban. Colleges and universities, moreover, which received some 1,450 earmarks worth $1.6 billion in fiscal 2010, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, are still riding the earmarks gravy train. Most importantly, senators from both parties have resisted pressure to swear off earmarks -- meaning the action may simply shift.
"The money is just going to flow across the Capitol to the Senate," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
And earmarks controversies aren't over. When appropriations bills start hitting the floor in late spring and early summer, Republicans are poised to challenge each and every nonprofit earmark that a Democrat requests. Republican leaders will (in theory, at least) be able to argue that the bills contain no GOP earmarks.
"They'll have to follow," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., the House's leading earmarks critic, of his Democratic colleagues. He added: "If the Democrats are forced to pull back, then I think you'll certainly see the Senate change its position."
President Obama, too, may face growing pressure to walk his own earmarks talk. Obama pledged to reform the earmarks process on the campaign trail, but last year signed what he admitted was an "imperfect" budget bill that contained thousands of earmarks. The danger for Democrats, both on Capitol Hill and in the White House, is that Republicans pre-empt them on ethics and good government issues that increasingly resonate with swing voters.
Nor is the PMA scandal going away. The FBI is still investigating, and Flake is still coming to the House floor with resolutions like the one he sought to push through without success on March 18, which called on the ethics committee to release details on all witnesses, subpoenas and documents in the panel's PMA investigation.
"There are some 200,000 pages of OCE documents," said Flake. "And once they're reviewed, you'll see there's a lot more to this story."
The more voters learn about earmarks, the harder it may become for lawmakers to vociferously defend them.