After the House Democrats' announcement, Republicans pledged a one-year moratorium.
WASHINGTON - Pledges to rid Washington of pork barrel spending turned into a game of political football Thursday, with Minnesota Rep. John Kline championing the charge for a Republican Hail Mary.
House Republicans swore not to make any special requests for their districts in 2011 spending bills a day after House Democrats said they would reject any earmarks directed to for-profit corporations.
A tool for sending federal funds home, lawmakers have come to rely more and more on earmarks, hitting nearly 14,000 earmarks in 2005. Requests dipped a bit after that, but by last year they had ratcheted up to just under 12,000, bringing fresh criticism about unnecessary spending.
The moves on both sides of the House remain largely symbolic, because neither party in the Senate has adopted similar pledges. But Thursday's move by House Republicans represents a coup for Kline, who stopped requesting earmarks four years ago and who has pushed his Republican colleagues to follow suit.
$580 million in earmarks
That, however, has not necessarily stopped the flow of money to his district. Bill Harper, chief of staff for Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, said on Thursday that Eagan, which sits in Kline's district, has turned to McCollum for some earmark requests.
Overall, Minnesota sought $580 million in earmarks last year, ranging from $6 million for highway reconstruction to $10 million for Polaris to build National Guard vehicles.
"What's wrong with [earmarks] is that the volume is so immense that there is no way that they can compete on their merits," said Kline, above, whose district lies just south of the Twin Cities. "There's no way to say, 'This [project] is a priority for spending the taxpayer's dollars.' So they get allocated based on all the wrong reasons."
Kline said federal funding for district projects frequently is worthwhile. But, he said, the current system favors committee membership, seniority and political parties above merit.
In Congress since 2003, Kline has emerged as a leader in his party and has become a vocal critic of earmarks, even creating a standalone campaign website: stopthepork.com.
Kline said that not only do the number of earmarks need to be cut, the process itself should be changed, putting more emphasis on state agencies to allocate federal funds.
Kline said he hopes the moratorium on earmarks will jumpstart that reform effort. "As long as earmarks were there, in my judgment there was no incentive to get this done," he said.
'It is fundamentally unfair'
Rep. Erik Paulsen, the only Minnesota Republican not to swear off earmarks before the party ban, seemed markedly less enthusiastic about the news, arguing that it alone wouldn't have any real impact on fiscal responsibility in Washington. Rep. Michele Bachmann has followed in Kline's path and does not request earmarks.
Said Paulsen: "As much as I would like to think that a one-year moratorium will address the spending issue, having a temporary ban alone without fundamentally changing Congress's spending habits won't ensure true reform. ... It is fundamentally unfair to my constituents" if Democrats continue the process without a Congress-wide moratorium.
Some House Democrats, who heralded their own efforts to block earmarks for for-profit companies, contended that the Republican counterweight went too far. Harper, whose boss sits on the committee responsible for earmarks, said Republicans are shirking their job. "The question is, what's the role of the elected representative?" he said. "Constitutionally, the role of Congress is to direct spending."
Eric Roper • 202-408-2723