WASHINGTON — When it comes to the age-old practice of Congress sending millions of dollars back home, not even President Obama is likely to bring much change.
As the president signed a massive government spending bill that earmarks billions of dollars for members' hometown projects, Obama urged Congress to increase the transparency of the earmark process and warned that tough budget times ahead may curtail future largess.
Members of Congress from Florida — who brought $252 million home, ranking them fourth in the nation, plus more for the Everglades — defended their use of the controversial budget tactic as a way to meet constituents' needs.
"It's a way of bringing much-needed support to local non-profit agencies and citizen-driven initiatives that otherwise would suffer," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. Earmarks she sponsored alone and with other members totaled $9.7 million.
Earmarks make up $7.7 billion, less than 2 percent, of the $410 billion spending bill Obama signed Wednesday, but they have become a symbol of special-interest clout in Washington. Obama campaigned against them, and many Republicans have called for their elimination — even while stuffing the spending bill with pet projects.
"Let there be no doubt: this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business, and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability that the American people have every right to expect and demand," Obama said.
Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, a veteran member of the Appropriations Committee whose earmarks totaled $21.8-billion, said, "Any way you can make it more transparent, I'm for that, but I am not … for eliminating Congress' right to say, 'No, you ought to spend that taxpayer dollar here, instead of over there.' "
The practice of earmarking is far more open than ever before, following sweeping reforms the Democrats enacted when they took control in 2007 and that for the first time required members to own up to their earmarks.
House Democratic leaders agreed Wednesday to two new reforms: giving agencies 20 days to review projects to ensure they're needed, and requiring that earmarks for for-profit enterprises be bid competitively.
Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that one "is going to be virtually impossible to really have an impact, because most earmarks that are going to private companies … are written so there's only one answer."
Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores, the top Republican on the defense appropriations committee and one of the most prolific earmark writers in Congress, has funneled hundreds of millions over the years to defense contractors in the Tampa Bay area.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., did not agree to new reforms, and said only that the Senate will consider them.
Most Republicans in the House and Senate voted against the omnibus, and many have railed against the earmarks —even though the number of congressional earmarks before 2007, when Republicans ran Congress, was double the number now.
The biggest earmark writer in Congress this year is Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, who pushed his state's earmarks to third nationally, ahead of much larger states like Florida, New York and Ohio.
Cochran at least voted for the bill. Other Republicans, including Young, Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota, Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor and Sen. Mel Martinez, voted against it, but still included hundreds of thousands for their districts.
"At a time when families are struggling to balance their budgets, when workers are concerned about losing their jobs, when states are struggling to maintain service levels, it's unconscionable Congress won't end its addiction to earmarks," Martinez said Tuesday night.
Yet according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, Martinez's earmarks totaled $106.7 million, including $18.7 million in solo earmarks, ranking him 34th in the Senate. His solo projects included $10 million for Orlando-area bus and rail projects, $300,000 for storm water management in Orlando and $950,000 to renovate a homeless shelter.
Asked about that, spokesman Ken Lundberg said, "Florida taxpayers are federal taxpayers and until all earmarks are stripped, Florida deserves its fair share."