“Frankly, I watch everyday as people try to get around it,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said of the moratorium, as she and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) introduced the “Earmark Elimination Act of 2011” last week.
“There is an effort underway to go back to earmarking as usual, as it used to be,” said Toomey. “We can’t afford to waste money this way.”
“We have staggering deficits,” he continued. “We have a completely unsustainable debt. We’re on a fiscal trajectory that can only lead to disaster if we don’t change this path.”
Opponents say earmarks account for less than one percent of the budget. “I’ll acknowledge that $33 billion itself doesn’t put us on a sustainable fiscal path,” Toomey conceded. “But we’ve got to start somewhere.”
McCaskill, who is currently serving her first term, said she did not campaign against earmarks ahead of her election in 2006. “Frankly, I didn’t really understand how the process worked until I got here.”
Then, she said, she began asking questions. “Nobody could tell me who was making the decisions as to who got how much.
“The whole process … made me realize that something was amiss, the way this place spends money – and I said I’m not doing it.”
McCaskill recalled having once filed an amendment to remove a $170 million earmark for the salmon industry that originated from then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“It was very awkward, because the members – the leaders of my party were aghast that I would take on the Speaker’s earmark in an open amendment process on the floor of the Senate,” she explained.
“One of my colleagues came to me red-faced on the floor and said ugly things at that moment. And it was shocking to me that it was so controversial that I had done that – but it told me a lot about how this place worked.”
McCaskill said when she first started pushing the moratorium “most people looked at us like we were tilting at windmills.”
But rising concerns about federal spending, increasing deficits and mounting debt pushed the issue to the forefront as voters began calling for an end to the funding of projects like turtle tunnels and research into the effects of alcohol on mice.
Now, McCaskill says it would be “dangerous” to vote against the Earmark Elimination Act.
“Everybody is feeling pretty endangered regardless of party in Washington right now, because we sense the frustration of the American people about the dysfunction of this place,” she said.
“I think this would be the whipped cream and cherry on top of the dysfunction sundae if people actually had the nerve to vote against a permanent end to earmarks.”
However, asked whether there was any indication that the Senate majority leader would bring the legislation to a vote, McCaskill said, “I would say no.”
Some members of Congress say ending earmarks would give more power to the Executive Branch.
“Banning congressional earmarks won’t save a single taxpayer dime,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) wrote in a joint op-ed last March.
A ban on earmarks, they argued, would give “the Obama administration and federal bureaucrats even greater power and authority over the expenditure of taxpayer funds.”
Inhofe said the $787-billion stimulus bill did not contain any congressional pet projects, but millions of dollars’ worth of “bureaucratic earmarks,” which lacked oversight from Congress.
McCaskill called the argument that Congress knows better than the bureaucrats “bogus.”
“This doesn’t stop local decisions about where federal money goes,” she said, adding that most funding for earmarks is taken out of grants and programs decided at the state level.
“It just stops individual members of Congress from being able to sprinkle a little fairy dust in the back room.”
Toomey said Congress has incentives that the bureaucracy and the Pentagon “just don’t have.”
“And that is to get that big media splash when they walk down with that gigantic oversized check and say, ‘I’m the guy that brought you this big pile of money.’”
Toomey said this is the reason for “bridges to nowhere,” teapot museums, a cowgirl hall of fame and super Christmas trees.
The bill would “change the culture in Congress” to one interested in how much money could be saved, rather than how much could be spent, he said.
McCaskill said the bill would make congressional spending merit-based – “not on how powerful you are, who you know or how long you’ve been here.”