WASHINGTON — In a rapid display of gamesmanship, House Republicans vowed Thursday to ban all budget earmarks, a day after Democrats said they would not award them to for-profit companies.
The move reflects growing public concern over government spending and follows recent ethics investigations into "pay-to-play" connections between lawmakers, special interests and political contributions.
"Earmarks have become emblematic of everything that is wrong with spending here in Washington, D.C.," said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the Republican Conference.
But the reception from Florida's biggest earmarker — indeed, one of the country's top practitioners — was more subdued.
"The fact they are making it across the board, makes it far more acceptable," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, who has used earmarks to greatly boost the defense contractor industry in the Tampa Bay area.
"It was something that was going to happen eventually, so why not now?" Young said, alluding to efforts in the past several years to make the process more transparent.
Still, without saying he was disappointed, the veteran defense appropriator acknowledged election-year politics were at play and offered his long-stated defense of earmarks as good for national security and jobs. Earmarks are projects funded outside of the normal budget process that tend to benefit a member's home district.
Young, who recently announced he will run for a 21st term, has directed hundreds of millions of dollars to military contractors in addition to public construction projects and universities. Almost all lawmakers seek earmarks, but Young is among the most successful because he is a longtime member of the House defense appropriations committee.
This year, he secured $90.5 million for 41 solo earmarks — more than any other House member, according to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Young, 79, attributed Thursday's move to public sentiment toward government spending and news coverage of "terrible" earmarks like the "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska. Several other Florida Republicans issued endorsements of the one-year ban.
"Middle-class families and small businesses across Florida are making sacrifices when it comes to their own budgets, yet Washington continues to spend trillions of taxpayer dollars on bailouts and pet projects," Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who has sought his own earmarks, said in a statement.
Young was among seven House members investigated and cleared by an ethics panel looking at a now-defunct lobbying firm, the earmarks it secured and the political contributions it made.
"I would invite anybody to go visit any public institution or business and find something wrong," Young said. "We are very, very careful on how we handle earmarks."
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a leading critic of earmarks, said House Republicans alone accounted for 1,200 earmarks worth $1 billion this year, while Democrats said their ban would kill 1,000 worth $1.7 billion.
All told, there were $15.9 billion in earmarks put in the current fiscal budget
Young's office did not say Thursday how many earmark requests it had received for the 2011 budget. The deadline for submitting appropriations requests is March 19.
The Senate, so far, has refused to follow the House's fervor for reform, even if both Democrats and Republicans limit the pledge to one year.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he would offer a measure to ban all earmarks until the federal deficit is eliminated. But top leaders, Democrats and Republicans, have ties to the appropriations process, so it could be difficult.
Young said a one-year pause should not hurt too much because money for projects is never delivered as rapidly as it is appropriated. Philosophically, though, Young said he is concerned the ban impedes the right of Congress to appropriate, contending the power would be with the executive branch.
"I really believe it bumps into the Constitution," he said. "There will continue to be earmarks. And anyone who has an inside line to the White House will get their earmarks."
Young's political opponent, Democrat Charlie Justice, seized on the news, saying, "About the only person left who thinks pork-barrel spending is a good idea seems to be Bill Young."
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report. Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com.