WASHINGTON — As the House Appropriations Committee met last week to consider four massive spending bills, something was missing: congressional "earmarks."
Long dismissed as pork, earmarks had more than quadrupled under the Republican-controlled Congress. By some estimates, lawmakers were quietly adding nearly $19 billion a year in special projects for their districts or states to the appropriations measures.
Democrats, now in control, have pledged to cut the number in half and have imposed new rules requiring the disclosure of the names of lawmakers who request earmarks.
It would appear that the era of the earmark is over. Or maybe not.
The issue has sparked sharp exchanges between the White House and Congress and between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Meetings of the House Appropriations Committee have grown testy, and the White House budget office has built an online database to track earmarks.
Though the homeland security, energy and water, military construction-Veterans Affairs and interior appropriations bills may not include earmarks, they might by the time they become law. The chairman of the committee, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., has said earmarks will be added when House-Senate conference committees meet to hammer out the final versions of the bills.
"I don't want anyone to misunderstand," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who as chairman of the House interior appropriations subcommittee, one of 12 appropriations subcommittees in the House of Representatives, is in the thick of the debate. "There will be earmarks when we get to conference."
Obey has said his committee hasn't had time to review the thousands of earmark requests it's received from House members because it had been focused on the Iraq war-spending bill and appropriations measures left over from the last Congress.
Republicans say Obey is maneuvering to ensure that earmarks added to the spending bills can't be challenged. The final version of an appropriations bill can't be amended when it comes to the House floor; members have to vote either yes or no.
"What they've done is set up a system where you can't get at earmarks; you can't eliminate them," said Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Dicks dismisses Boehner's criticism, saying Republicans had gone "overboard" for years in adding earmarks to spending bills to prop up new or vulnerable Republican members.
Obey, Dicks and other Democrats say the debate is about more than just controlling federal spending and cutting the federal budget deficit. They say it's a battle between the executive and legislative branches with constitutional overtones that's turned into a partisan brawl.
Prominently displayed at the top of the House Appropriations Committee's Web site is Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7, of the U.S. Constitution, which reads, "No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law."
Or, as Dicks put it, "Congress controls the purse strings."
Critics say Democrats are misreading the Constitution. The Founding Fathers, they say, never intended Congress to fund anything but projects of national significance.
"When they quote the Constitution, it's a form of self-justification to give them power that doesn't exist," said Tom Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, one of the congressional watchdog groups that oppose earmarks.
Schatz said the first Congress rejected a loan to a glass manufacturer because it was thought to be unconstitutional, and the second Congress rejected aid for cod fishermen in New England.
"We survived for years without earmarks," Schatz said. "Lawmakers simply don't want to eliminate them. They could if they wanted to."
Dicks countered that people are elected to Congress to take care of their districts and their states, and taking federal money back home for local projects has always been part of the job.
"People expect you to do it," Dicks said. "That's why there is a Congress."
As for the White House, the president gets 98.5 percent of everything he requests, Dicks said, even though federal bureaucrats at the Office of Management and the Budget, rather than elected officials who represent local constituents, are drawing up the administration's budget.
"OMB thinks any change in their budget is an earmark," Dicks said. "That is ludicrous."
White House officials say they don't oppose all earmarks.
"The notion is not that every earmark is bad or there shouldn't be any earmarks," OMB Director Rob Portman said. "The notion is that this has gotten out of control."