Back in 1987, Congress presented President Reagan with its transportation funding bill – and he vetoed it. Lawmakers, he said, had inserted too many bonus projects for their home districts – 152 of them.
Last year's highway bill designated 6,371 such projects, including the now-famous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.
Congress overrode that Reagan veto in 1987, and it hasn't looked back since. Almost 20 years later, the practice of targeting spending to specific projects – known inside the Beltway as earmarks – is ingrained in Capitol Hill culture.
This year, though, earmarks are embroiled in controversy surrounding legislators' relationships with lobbyists. Several lawmakers have forsworn earmarks and want their colleagues to do the same.
The hue and cry notwithstanding, the expansion of the pork barrel is startling: Earmarks added to spending bills totaled $3.1 billion in 1991, compared with a record $29.3 billion in fiscal year 2006, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.
With today's examination of an Alaskan "bridge to nowhere," the Monitor launches an up-close look at several projects – all tagged with the "pork" label – contained in this year's federal budget.
In an unusual move, funding for the "bridges to nowhere" was put to a vote last October; 82 senators opted to keep the $453 million rather than send the money to Gulf Coast relief. But eventually, bashing in the news media and ridicule on late-night comedy shows took a toll, and Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R) dropped the earmarks.
"Earmarks are a gateway drug on the road to spending addiction," says Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, the first to challenge the projects. His campaign against such budget items hasn't won him friends on Capitol Hill. Some colleagues call him simply "that man from Oklahoma."
"Earmarks are like a virus. They cause a huge amount of wasteful spending," says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. "It has spread further and wider than it has in the past."
That's partly because it has become routinized. Committee chairs dole out earmarks to members of both parties, ensuring that the practice prevails. Lawmakers campaign and raise donations on a pledge of obtaining them. Many K Street lobby shops solicit business on their record of delivering earmarks for clients.
The practice can lead to jail, if the link between earmarks and campaign donations looks too much like a bribe. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California was sentenced in March to more than eight years in jail for accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in return for earmarks in spending bills.
Defending the practice, some lawmakers say they are in a better position to know what is good for their districts or states than some government bureaucrat. But critics say it can be hard to avoid the appearance of corruption.
"Are they spending tax dollars in the public's best interest or are they paying off cronies and campaign contributors?" asks Ed Frank of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. "The only way for members to avoid that question is to avoid earmarks."