Lawmakers have dropped in at least 12,000 earmarks worth $24.7 billion.
After moving earlier this year to make the federal budget process more transparent to the public, Congress is falling short of its goal of full and timely disclosure of lawmakers' pet projects, or earmarks.
Despite lawmakers' promises to slash earmarks by half, the spending bills for this fiscal year – now wending their way through the appropriations process – include at least 12,000 earmarks totaling more than $24.7 billion, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Moreover, say watchdog groups and some members, Congress has waived its own new rules on these spending add-ons, meaning the public is unable to see earmarks on a searchable database before they come up for a vote. Millions of dollars in projects are still being "air-dropped" into final bills behind closed doors, they charge.
Only two projects – $129,000 for the "home of the perfect Christmas tree" project in Spruce Pine, N.C., and $1 million for a museum to celebrate the 1969 music festival in Woodstock, Vt. – were voted out of bills this year after challenges on the floor.
But public interest in waste and corruption – and Americans' rising distrust of Congress as an institution – continues to act as a prod toward greater transparency and disclosure on Capitol Hill.
Latest idea to spur reform
On Thursday, a group of House GOP appropriators called for the establishment of a Joint Select Committee on Earmark Reform. The new committee, evenly split between the House and Senate majority and minority parties, would investigate earmarking as practiced both by the Congress and the executive branch. It would also cover all congressional committees. The resolution, which was not initiated by the Republican leadership, has 72 Republican sponsors.
"The level of reform presented and adopted by the Congress so far has not convinced the public that things have changed in Washington," says Rep. Zach Wamp (R) of Tennessee, a cosponsor. "We need sweeping reforms in a comprehensive way on how earmarks are decided in authorization, appropriations, tax and tariff bills, and administration requests."
If such a reform is truly comprehensive, there's a good possibility of picking up Democratic support as well, the resolution's sponsors say.
"When you have stories on a daily basis on earmarks, the pressure is going to be there," says Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, who has alienated many colleagues on both sides of the aisle by calling for floor votes to strip member earmarks.