WASHINGTON — Republican senators unveiled an earmark revision plan Thursday as part of an effort to counter their reputations as pork-happy spenders who ran up a deficit while in power and lost the public's trust in their fiscal oversight.
"This isn't just about transparency, it's about accountability," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., one of the Senate's toughest critics of earmarks. "And you can't have accountability unless the American people know what's going on."
The main thrust of the Republican proposal calls for earmarks to be detailed in spending bills, not hidden in obscure committee reports. It would make it easier for the public to identify the special budget allocations, said the five GOP senators who developed the proposal for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The legislation also would make it easier for other senators to object to the earmarks if they're added at the last minute without being vetted by spending committees.
"It truly does achieve what needs to be achieved in regard to earmarks," said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, one of the five senators who developed the proposal.
Crapo pushed for one of the committee's strongest suggestions: to put money from unused earmarks toward the federal deficit. Currently, federal agencies are required to spend the earmark money as directed by Congress. But under Crapo's proposal, if Congress decides to abandon an earmark, the money wouldn't revert to the federal agency to spend how it pleases. Instead, it would go toward paying down the deficit, one of the only suggestions the committee made that would require a change to the law.
When earmarks are eliminated, "those dollars are also eliminated from the budget and applied to the reduction of our national debt," Crapo said, calling it a "very, very critical step."
The committee also suggested that the president's budget requests get the same level of scrutiny as congressional earmarks and be subject to a "full justification and review."
It is Congress, after all, that is responsible for spending, said Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Cochran, along with Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is consistently one of the top earmarkers in the Senate. An annual study released Wednesday by the budget watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste found that Congress had earmarked 11,610 projects for this year's budget, adding up to $17.2 billion. Cochran alone had $892 million in sponsored projects. Stevens, the No. 2 earmarker in the Senate, earmarked $469 million, the watchdog group's "Pig Book" found.
But Cochran has consistently defended his right to earmark, especially for projects in his small, poor state.
"I think the test is not the number" of earmarks, Cochran said. "The Congress is going to have to exercise due care and restraint. And it has to serve the public interest. These are the tests I think are most important."
However, it was their fellow Republican, President Bush, who in January called on Congress to halve its spending on earmarks, saying that while they're a small slice of the overall federal budget, earmarks undermine the public's trust in government.
Critics also say that earmarks are often poorly justified budget allocations that allow the most powerful lawmakers — not need or merit — to dictate spending on pet projects, often in relative secrecy.
The GOP proposal puts senators closer to their counterparts in the House of Representatives, where Republicans tried Wednesday to impose a moratorium on all earmarks this budget year until they come up with a better way of approaching such spending. That effort failed, but House Republicans plan to continue the fight, said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.
"We're going to continue to keep up the pressure and use all the options at our disposal to make our point and make our case to the American people why an earmark freeze is a good idea," Smith said.
But House Democrats complained that the biggest earmarkers in Congress are Republicans, such as Stevens and Cochran, and that those members need to scale back their spending before Republicans dictate how the House and Senate should approach earmarks.
"We've made the system more transparent and cut the cost of earmarks by 43 percent," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the House Democratic caucus. "Republicans should get their own house in order before they begin discussing how to put America's fiscal house in order."
Senate Democrats, too, say that since they took control last year, they've forced a level of transparency that never existed under GOP-led Senates.
That transparency includes a rule requiring 48 hours of disclosure before the Senate votes on earmarks, requiring earmarks be published in a searchable form on the Internet and requiring that senators confirm that they or their families have no financial interest in the proposed earmark, said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Senate Democrats have "helped ensure better oversight for each earmark request by slashing the amount for earmarks by almost half," Manley said.