[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: Once upon a time – like six years ago – journalists wrote the word “earmark” inside quotations and followed it with an explanatory paragraph telling us how they were line items slipped into appropriation bills either openly or covertly.
Well, the term “earmark” is no longer inside baseball. [CLIP] PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The people’s trust in their government is undermined by Congressional earmarks, special interest projects that are often snuck in at the last minute without discussion or debate. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: In Monday’s State of the Union Address, President Bush tossed around the term pretty casually. [CLIP] PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: If you send me an appropriations bill that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half, I'll send it back to you with my veto. [APPLAUSE] [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: The word’s ascent into the political spotlight was mirrored by a change in meaning. Earmark used to refer only to how a program’s funds were procured. It was about the procedure. Now if someone uses the word “earmark,” it’s implied that they're talking about federal money spent on wasteful or even ridiculous local projects. The word “earmark” has become synonymous with that nasty old pejorative, “pork.”
Jonathan Weisman, staff writer for The Washington Post, says there could certainly be more transparency surrounding earmarks in that we could do without bridges to nowhere. But earmarks, he says, aren't altogether useless. JONATHAN WEISMAN: Most members of Congress would say, hey, I know better than some bureaucrat at the Department of Transportation what roads in my district most need attention. I should have the right to be able to allocate money that way.
If you as a lawmaker suddenly don't have the ability to put an earmark into a bill, it seems like the job that you wanted [LAUGHS] to do in Washington is taken away from you. BOB GARFIELD: CNN and CBS and other news organizations have been taking ongoing looks at earmarks, and they've pulled some easy targets out. [CLIPS] FEMALE CORRESPONDANT: The Sparta Teapot Museum is being financed by your tax dollars. MALE CORRESPONDANT: Why is it getting $500,000 of your federal tax funds? FEMALE CORRESPONDANT: Members of Congress usually get earmarks for pet projects back in their districts. It helps them get reelected –– [OVERLAPPING NEWS ITEMS] MALE CORRESPONDANT: –– the biggest mule festival in the United States, and it is here. Federal taxpayers are being turned into jackasses. [END CLIPS] BOB GARFIELD: But it is, historically and ultimately, a legitimate legislative mechanism, isn't it? JONATHAN WEISMAN: Absolutely. You know, the Iraq Study Group, that bipartisan group, was earmark. It was created as [LAUGHS] a little, what we would call a pet project by a congressman from Virginia, Republican Frank Wolf. Most research into breast cancer is done through earmarks.
Earmarks are the method by which members of Congress can exact policy. BOB GARFIELD: So when exactly did the term “earmark” become more or less synonymous with wasteful spending and political payoffs? JONATHAN WEISMAN: Tom DeLay, who was house majority leader for quite some time, really used earmarks to solidify and then expand Republican control not only of Congress but of Washington itself. He used earmarks to help Republicans in marginal districts gain control of their seats and make sure they would be reelected time again.
But he also used it to bequeath favors on K Street, on favored lobbyists and lobbying organizations. It was Jack Abramoff, the felonious Republican lobbyist, who called Capitol Hill “the earmark favor factory.” And it was really with Abramoff that earmarks became the word synonymous with pork. BOB GARFIELD: And this is a key point, [LAUGHS] because it was the Democrats who were using the word as a cudgel against DeLay and the rest of the GOP. JONATHAN WEISMAN: Absolutely. They used earmarks very much against the Republicans and used Jack Abramoff, obviously, against the Republicans in their campaign to successfully win control of Congress in 2006. BOB GARFIELD: Is this a case of Frankenstein’s monster turning against him? Because now the Democrats are in Congress and now the President is counting earmarks, essentially accusing them of using their power in the Congress to wantonly distribute pork. JONATHAN WEISMAN: This is actually, in some ways, utterly ridiculous. In 2001, when President Bush came into power, his first budget director, Mitch Daniels, declared war on earmarks. And Republicans basically just ignored that war on earmarks. Earmarks utterly proliferated between the year 2001 and 2005. They doubled, they tripled in some bills.
And now that the Democrats are in control, suddenly George W. Bush has discovered the evil of earmarks. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Well, it sounds positively Rovian, and yet Rove, as far as we can tell, is no longer working for the White House. Do you have any idea whose political ingenuity is behind turning this brand new pejorative against the Dems? JONATHAN WEISMAN: I would point to House Minority Leader John A. Boehner [LAUGHS] of Ohio. Boehner has always really hated these things, and his hands are clean. He has never requested earmarks for his fairly hardscrabble district in Ohio.
He’s the one who said, you know, one of the big problems in 2006 was that Republicans were successfully tarred as the big spenders, and that contributed to Republican defeats, especially in the House of Representatives.
So Boehner said if we can just grab onto this earmark issue, try to be cleaner than the Democrats and really hit them on it, no one will remember that we were the earmark kings because we are going to regain our mantle as the party of fiscal rectitude. And what you’re seeing President Bush do right now is back up the House Republicans. They are the ones that tried to make this, this huge issue. BOB GARFIELD: We spoke to a group called Citizens Against Governmental Waste. Since they don't want to put themselves in the position of judging what is a worthy project and what is a shameless waste of taxpayer dollars, from their perspective, in the end there really is no difference between earmarks and pork. JONATHAN WEISMAN: Well, let's put it this way. If you didn't do these earmarks you’re probably going to have little to no effect on the federal budget. It’s not that the Congress is piling on additional spending. It’s just carving out the spending that would already be there.
It used to be that a huge pot of money would just go to, say, the Department of Transportation. Then the Department of Transportation would farm that out to state Departments of Transportation or local road authorities and they would decide how to spend the money. It simply would give the bureaucracy more power in deciding how to spend that money.
There’s a balance here to be struck between the prerogative of Congress and the ability of bureaucrats, basically, to set their own their priorities. BOB GARFIELD: Okay. So just to recap, a legitimate but often abused legislative mechanism has now become synonymous with sleazy pork-barrel spending, and that’s not necessarily fair, but the toothpaste is out of the tube. Will they forever be deemed prima facie evidence of the culture of corruption? JONATHAN WEISMAN: I think that actually as soon as we start concentrating on much bigger issues, we'll kind of forget about this. Everybody agrees that it got way out of hand, that there are now hundreds of thousands of earmarks in the federal budget every year. When they get down to like maybe 15,000 earmarks, everyone will stop yelling at each other. BOB GARFIELD: Okay. I'll believe that when I see it. But, Jonathan, [LAUGHING] thank you so much for joining us. JONATHAN WEISMAN: [LAUGHS] Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan Weisman covers Congress for The Washington Post.
As is custom for the majority party, the Democrats are currently responsible for about 60 percent of Congressional earmarks. And if earmark is now a dirty word, there’s only one natural response. Change the word. Here’s Nancy Pelosi at a press conference over the summer. [CLIP] NANCY PELOSI: Why don't we just leave this room today forgetting the word “earmark?” This is legislatively directed spending. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Legislatively directed spending. Or we could follow the terminology of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. It issued a report this week on the subject of – Congressional funding directions.