Two senior Democratic appropriators called for a return to Congressional earmarking at Thursday morning's Appropriations markup, a cry that's all-but-certain to fall on deaf ears.
"I think one of the ... serious mistakes we have made is to eliminate Congressionally-directed spending. Period," Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said. "What was done to us in this process was troubling, because whether we're talking about a federal transportation bill, which used to be the most bipartisan measure considered by the House and Senate … or we're talking about individual appropriation bills, members understand their states, understand their needs better than those who work as professional bureaucrats and others in state capitols or in this town.”
Durbin is also the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds Defense, taking over after the death of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii.
Earmarks enjoy far less support among senators who don’t serve on the appropriations committee. Sen. Claire McCaskill is among the chamber’s most vocal opponents of the practice.
"I don't think that we should ever decide the expenditures of public money based on seniority, party affiliation or committee assignment,” the Missouri Democrat said in a brief interview.
"I didn't campaign against earmarks when I ran the first time. I just looked around when I got here and realized … they would pass around these slips of paper and it was like fairy dust was being sprinkled in a back room. I mean, this all needs to be on merit; it all needs to be on cost-benefit analysis,” McCaskill said. "I think the power of it is seductive. I think people enjoyed the accomplishment that they felt when they could see that they could wave a magic wand and this would be built …but I don't think that's a wise way to spend public funds."
Earmark supporters disagree with McCaskill’s assessment about who can best determine project spending.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said at the markup that he would stand behind each earmark that he had “gotten out of this committee in the last 29 years."
"I stand by every one of them. Have they all been successful? Now, maybe not, but I think that they went for legitimate programs that either improved the quality of life or transportation or infrastructure or things like that,” Harkin said. “So, I hope that on both sides we can get back to where we take our Congressional obligation seriously and we provide for Congressionally-directed funding again."
But, as the earmarking defense has continued, a lot has changed in a year.
The committee has a chairwoman for the first time in history (Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski) and two longtime Democratic members (Inouye and Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey) have died since the last markup. But even amid the partisan rancor over the top-line spending level, the comity remained largely intact.
"When I look — go back to the good old days, it was when Jamie Whitten could mumble and spend $25 billion bucks on 'Ag' in one mumble," said Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill.
To which Mikulski replied: "I can mumble and rumble."
Whitten served as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee from 1979 to 1992, with a much longer tenure holding the gavel of the Agriculture subcommittee, and an Agriculture Department building along the national mall bears his name.
Kirk, the ranking member on the Military Construction-VA subcommittee that drafted one of two bills endorsed Thursday, spoke about what the measure would do to combat the benefit claims backlog for veterans recovering from wartime injuries, including those has met while rehabbing from a stroke himself.
Kirk praised Mikulski and his "stroke-battle buddy" Military Construction-VA Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D.
"We just had a long, what I would describe as boring, conversation about national talking points. The same old tired partisan stuff, right as we were about to bring up Tim's bill, which actually does solve the backlog problem," Kirk said. "I would just hope this committee would get to its old-fashioned gut and get to the point of passing legislation which helps out a lot of Americans."