WASHINGTON — A year ago, Democrats and Republicans alike were pledging major earmark revisions after elections influenced by congressional scandals tied to the secret funding. One senator, South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint, blocked money for 10,000 pet projects and forced Congress to pass a bare-bones appropriations package for the 2007 fiscal year.
Now, though, President Bush has signed a spending package for the 2008 fiscal year that includes almost that many earmarks, which steer federal money to designated projects around the country.
"I'm disappointed that leaders in Congress sent me a massive spending bill that includes about 9,800 earmarks," Bush said Saturday in his national radio address.
"Among the earmarks Congress approved was one for a prison museum and another for a sailing school," the president said. "In the last election, congressional leaders ran on a promise that they would reform earmarks. They made some progress, but not nearly enough."
Under Republican control of Congress, scandals tied to secret earmarks sent one Republican lawmaker to jail (former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California), forced another to resign (former Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio) and prompted a federal probe of the party's senior senator (Ted Stevens of Alaska).
The earmarks also helped drive up federal spending, clashing with Republican promises to slash big government.
After voters cleaned house in the November 2006 elections and gave Democrats control of Congress, Bush joined DeMint's push to eliminate earmarks.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn't go that far, but she vowed to "bring full accountability and transparency to all earmarks."
As lawmakers prepare to return to Washington after the holidays, that pledge remains only half-filled at best.
For the first time, thanks to new rules imposed by the House of Representatives and the Senate, the 2008 omnibus spending measure identifies the sponsors of most of the earmarks, shining light on a decades-long practice of funding the pet projects in secret.
But many of the earmarks are hard to find in the giant bill, and their sponsors are harder still to pinpoint.
Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste, an anti-spending advocacy group in Washington, said it was difficult to find the earmarks and their sponsors because the omnibus bill and an earlier defense appropriations measure were simply scanned onto the Internet.
"If you're knowledgeable about certain types of databases, it's possible to find them. But in many cases additional software is needed to make it easily searchable," Schatz said. "You can't just go in, put in a member's name and it all pops up."
Democratic leaders also fell short of fulfilling their pledges to cut the number of earmarks in half.
The omnibus spending legislation and the defense appropriations measure contain almost 12,000 earmarks. That's a 25 percent decrease from the high-water mark of nearly 16,000 earmarks in 2005.
Bush and his Republican congressional allies spent much of 2007 battling over spending priorities with Democratic lawmakers. The disputes tied up the 2008 appropriations bills, as Congress passed and the president signed only the annual funding measure for the Pentagon.
The $555 million omnibus spending bill that finally emerged was a compromise: It contains $70 million for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in exchange for more domestic spending than Bush wanted.
"The bill took six hours to print out, it stood nearly 2 feet high and not one senator read it before we voted on it," DeMint said.
The earmarked projects alone, DeMint said, take up 696 pages, about one-fifth of the measure. His aides spent hours culling the earmarks from it and creating a searchable document.
DeMint accused the Democrats of having reneged on campaign promises to rein in earmarks, though he acknowledged that Republican lawmakers sought 40 percent of those in the omnibus bill.
In early 2007 after the Democrats took power, DeMint praised Pelosi for adopting significant earmark revisions. He then compelled the Senate to pass — by 98-0 — his measure applying the same changes to the Senate.
But over the following months, DeMint accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of trying to water down the earmark revisions as part of broader ethics legislation that put new limits on ties between lawmakers and lobbyists.
After the Senate and House had passed ethics bills, DeMint said he'd asked Reid for assurances that the earmark revisions wouldn't be weakened by a conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers fusing the measures into unified legislation.
When Reid refused to give him such assurances, DeMint said, he blocked the ethics bills from going to conference for six weeks.
That obstruction forced Reid and Pelosi to employ rarely used parliamentary maneuvers to create a final measure that lawmakers passed and Bushed signed into law in August.
Jim Manley, a Reid spokesman, didn't dispute DeMint's description of the dispute. But he denied that the earmark provisions now in place were watered down in the Senate.
"His entire earmark crusade is a political ploy," Manley said of DeMint. "The fact is that not a single earmark was disclosed when Republicans controlled Congress. When Democrats took over, we required every single earmark to be publicly identified along with the congressional sponsor."
Nadeam Elshami, a Pelosi spokesman, also said the House earmark controls hadn't been weakened in the Senate.