The first spending bill to begin moving through Congress since House Republicans pledged to forgo earmarks shows the vow is working: The bill contains nearly 50 percent less in pork-barrel spending than last year's version.
The 2011 homeland security spending bill, which was approved by a House subcommittee last week, includes just one Republican earmark. And just as telling, House Democrats' earmarks dropped dramatically, with the dollar amount down nearly 20 percent from last year's bill.
"Essentially, the vacuum that was created by virtually no Republican earmarks wasn't backfilled by more Democratic earmarks, and in fact, Democrats actually took less than they did last year," said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group. "There is a fear of overstepping the earmarking bounds, and also a commitment to at least further whittling away at earmark levels."
Earlier this year, House Republicans voted to impose a one-year ban on requesting earmarks, the items lawmakers insert into bills and reports to direct money to their states and districts back home. They said the early indications show that it's working.
"This is a clear sign that House Republicans' principled stand for an earmark moratorium and real reform is having an immediate effect," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who powered the moratorium through.
All told, last year's House-passed bill included more than 150 earmark requests, for a total of $110 million. Of those, 110 were from Democrats, for $70 million, while the rest were Republican earmarks.
All but a handful of Republicans are abiding by the new moratorium - one of them is Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao of Louisiana. He has the lone GOP earmark in this year's bill, for $800,000 to be used for upgrades to New Orleans' emergency operation center.
The rest of the 72 earmarks are for Democrats. They total $56 million in projects - a drop of 19.6 percent from Democrats' total last year, and a drop of nearly 50 percent from the total racked up by both parties in the House in the 2010 bill.
Democrats said it's too early to draw conclusions about how this year's process will play out or whether that trend will continue in the rest of the bills.
And in the Senate, neither party has matched House Republicans' moratorium.
But House Democrats point to the steps the party has taken over the last few years to rein in the practice, which had ballooned when Republicans controlled Congress.
Lawmakers now are required to post all earmark requests online, and spending bills include lists of earmarks, making it easier for fellow lawmakers and the public to scrutinize the projects. And earlier this year, committee Chairman David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, banned earmarks to for-profit entities, of which there were several in last year's homeland security bill.
The homeland security bill is the first of the dozen annual appropriations bills Congress is supposed to pass. It passed the subcommittee on voice vote and now awaits action in the full committee.
Republicans said they tried to make progress in the bill.
"House Republicans are hearing from the American people and are taking seriously our $13 trillion federal debt. The GOP earmark moratorium is just one example of Republicans trying to exact some discipline and its unfortunate the Democrats did not join in this effort," said Stefani Zimmerman, spokeswoman for Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee.
She said her boss tried to skim $100 million off the bill's cost from long-term information-technology programs and the construction at the old St. Elizabeths hospital site in Washington of a headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, but that effort was defeated.
The homeland security bill must still pass the House and be squared with an eventual Senate version, where more earmarks are expected to be added.
Mr. Ellis, the earmark watchdog, said all eyes will be on Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat and the Senate spending committee chairman, to see if he allows a dramatic increase in earmarks to make up for the drop in House Republicans' earmarks.
House subcommittees are scheduled to tackle five more bills this week, even though the chamber has yet to pass a budget setting overall spending limits.
This weekend, President Obama said he will insist Congress not go beyond the overall level of spending he proposed in his February budget, which called for a freeze on non-security discretionary spending.
"I've sent a clear signal to the leadership when we met, even if we do not get the entire budget package passed through Congress, that top-line number needs to stay firm. And I'm serious about it," he said.
Mr. Obama has also called for better controls on earmarks, and some of the projects Democrats did include in their bill put them on a collision course with the president.
In his budget, submitted in February, Mr. Obama told Congress to stop earmarking money from the Emergency Operations Center Grant Program, but House Democrats earmarked $24 million in specific grants under that fund.
Republican Mr. Cao had requested $10 million for the emergency operations center, but the bill directs just $800,000 to the project.
Twenty-two other lawmakers also won $800,000 grants - the maximum given under the emergency operations fund - and 12 lawmakers won smaller grants.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC