The New York Times reports:
WASHINGTON — The fact that Congress remains a spending disagreement or two away from shutting down the government no doubt strikes some as remarkable. But there is another extraordinary aspect to the fiscal clash unfolding on Capitol Hill: earmarks have disappeared from the budgetary landscape.
It is still sinking in for both those who have lavished money on hometown projects and those who have spent years opposing earmarks that the pork-barrel spending that has driven so many appropriations measures through the House and Senate is, at least for now, at an end.
Even Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, who made battling earmarks a cornerstone of his Congressional career since his election in 1990, said he would not have predicted that Congress could kick the habit.
“Think of this fight we have had for 20 years,” Mr. Boehner said in a recent interview. “If somebody would have asked me, ‘Will you ever get there?’ I would have had my doubts.”
But through a confluence of events, Mr. Boehner and the rest of the anti-earmark crowd did get there; the impact of the decision by leaders of the House and the Senate to ban earmarks for at least the next two years is already being felt.
When House Republicans were searching for cuts to offer Senate Democrats as part of a temporary spending plan to avert a government shutdown, they were able to reach into accounts set aside for earmarks and find nearly $2.8 billion that would have previously gone to water projects, transit programs and construction programs. No earmarks, no need for that money, and the threat of an imminent shutdown was eased.
Lawmakers said the absence of earmarks also allowed for a more freewheeling debate on the House floor during consideration of the Republican plan to slash $61 billion from this year’s budget since Democrats and Republicans were not caught up in protecting the special provisions they had worked so hard to tuck into the spending bill.
“This is a completely new experience, and a good one,” said Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who had lost scores of attempts on the House floor to strip earmarks from spending bills.
While spending on earmarks is a tiny portion of the budget, critics like Mr. Flake and Mr. Boehner said they played an insidious role in pushing up federal spending through what is known in legislative terms as logrolling.
Top members of the Appropriations Committee might, for instance, grant a lawmaker’s request for a few million dollars for an important project back home. That lawmaker would then be obligated to support the entire multibillion-dollar bill despite possible reservations. Woe to the person who gets an earmark and then opposes the bill; chances for a future earmark would be somewhere between zero and none.
“You get millions for an earmark and end up voting for billions of dollars that you may oppose,” said Steve Ellis, a vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group.