Wednesday, December 14, 2011

They're Back

Getting rid of cockroaches is difficult. Getting rid of congressional earmarks apparently is almost as difficult.

House Republicans banned earmarks, a top symbol of congressional profligacy, after they won control of the chamber last fall in a wave of voter anger over excessive government spending.

But more than half of the amendments to this year's House Department of Defense authorization bill were earmarks, according to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a leading congressional critic of the practice.

In a report to be released this week, McCaskill said that the House Armed Services Committee's chairman, Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., set up a system that enabled members to "circumvent the earmark ban" by offering pre-approved amendments that outlined the projects and the funds they hoped to secure for their districts.

And it's not just the staid old GOP regulars who are back to business as usual when it comes to larding up bills. The brand new Tea Party spawn and Democrats are doing their part to bypass the normal budgetary process.

Of the 225 amendments to the House defense authorization bill that McCaskill's staff reviewed, aides judged that 115 — totaling $834 million — were earmarks, based on several factors. These included how similar an amendment was to a previous earmark requested by the same lawmaker. To determine that, her staff reviewed the lawmaker's website and press releases, past defense bills and earmark databases maintained by government watchdog groups.

The report found that 75 of the alleged earmarks belonged to Democratic members of the House committee, who, unlike the Republicans, were not subject to a self-imposed ban. Republicans, meanwhile, contributed 40 of the alleged earmarks, including 20 from freshmen elected last fall.

McCaskill said in an interview that she found the number of freshman Republicans surprising because the 2010 election, she said, "was supposed to be about reckless spending, shutting down the favor factory and no business as usual in Washington."

As I've said before, I have no real objection to pork, the gaining of funds for a project to benefit a representative's district. That's part of the deal when we send critters to congress: they represent us and our interests. What I object to is the sneaking in of such pork at virtually the last minute without review by the budget committees and without debate. Most representatives aren't even aware of the existence of the earmarks at the time they actually vote on the bill. That's a bad practice, especially when trimming down the budget is supposed to be such an important thing to do.

I will say this: I'm impressed at how quickly the Tea Party freshmen learned the ropes. In other words, no change here.

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