WASHINGTON — They are old bulls both, legendary for fiercely lording over the Senate Appropriations Committee and funneling billions to their home states.
But while Sens. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, will no longer be leading the panel, the congressional habit of doling out earmarks is unlikely to change.
If anything, the biggest challenge to "earmarking" money for specific projects — derided as pork by critics and hometown boons by defenders — may come from President-elect Barack Obama. He has said he will pare such expenditures to their 1994 levels, billions below today's amounts.
The grizzled duo — Stevens turned 85 on Tuesday, Byrd 91 on Thursday — have long been the faces of a committee that, with its House counterpart, control over $1 trillion a year in spending on everything from aircraft carriers to zoological research. They have 90 years in the Senate between them.
The increasingly frail Byrd has announced he will step aside as chairman of the committee, but will remain on it when the new Congress convenes in January. Stevens, the former chairman and top Republican on the panel, learned this week that he had narrowly lost his bid for a seventh six-year term after being convicted of federal corruption charges and will be gone next year. Through spokesmen, both men declined to comment on the implications of their departures.
"Earmarks won't be abandoned," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., himself a venerable member of the Appropriations panel who is also retiring. "They're needed."
Earmarks have become an end in themselves for many lawmakers, growing from just a few billion dollars a year in the early 1990s to a peak of $27 billion in 2005, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a conservative group that monitors such spending. It has dipped a bit since Democrats took control of Congress two years ago and totaled $17 billion for 2008, the organization said.
Such spending has been especially important to states like Alaska and West Virginia, which have well-positioned members of the Appropriations panel. Alaska received $380 million and West Virginia $326 million in earmarks for 2008 alone, and both routinely rank among the top five states annually in earmarks per resident, the group's figures show.
Byrd will still be on the committee and deferred to by colleagues. Stevens' departure, though, suggests that Alaska stands to lose much of its influence on the panel, even if he is replaced by his junior colleague, GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, or the Democrat who defeated him, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
"Senator Byrd and Senator Stevens often vied for the crown of earmark king, but somebody else will step into that seat," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, another group that watches federal spending.
The two senators were able to dominate their committee, not just with seniority and experience but sheer force of temperament.
Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., a member of the House Appropriations Committee, recalls that when the House and Senate panels would meet together to craft compromise spending bills, some of his proposals would be quickly eliminated by Stevens.
"I'd sit in the conference and discuss whatever, some language on Cuba, and it was never a discussion" when Stevens opposed it, Serrano said. "It was, 'No, I don't like it,' and that was it."
Replacing Byrd as committee chairman will be Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, 84, a 38-year veteran of the Appropriations panel. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., a senator for three decades, has been the committee's leading Republican since 2005 but Stevens has remained a major player, especially on defense issues.
Hawaii and Mississippi are already perennial leaders in earmark money per state resident, with Hawaii getting a total of $283 million and Mississippi $450 million in 2008, according to data from the Citizens group. Both Cochran and Inouye are traditional members of the committee and have shown no taste for revamping how it works.
"It's a culture," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a conservative and earmark foe who has clashed with Appropriations leaders and predicts no change once Byrd and Stevens step aside. "It corrupts the system. You have to bring home the bacon to be qualified to be a good representative."
With change unlikely to come from within, Obama might be the biggest threat to earmarks — if he decides to follow up on a campaign promise.
His campaign Web site touts a "Plan for restoring fiscal discipline" that in part says he will "slash earmarks to no greater than year 1994 levels and ensure all spending decisions are open to the public."
There were $8 billion in earmarks in 1994, according to the Citizens group, billions less than lawmakers received this year.
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