There was a time in U.S. Rep. Connie Mack's career when his website proudly highlighted a hometown newspaper article praising him for "bringing home the federal bacon."
That was so 2008.
Today, Republican voters want a diet. And Mack, a candidate for U.S. Senate, is fending off his fellow Republican opponents who are bashing him for voting for billions of dollars in earmarks since his election to Congress in 2004.
Mack says he's "proud" of the earmarks he submitted for his Southwest Florida district — namely for widening Interstate 75. But he says he supports a new moratorium on earmarks because times have changed and the budget process had been abused by others.
"We fought for a fair return on tax dollars for my district. But certainly, we're at a different time and place right now. And that is a $15 trillion debt that, with the passage of the increasing of the debt ceiling, will be $17 trillion," he said. "We're in a very dangerous place."
Mack says the real big-spending culprit is Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who voted for President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus and his health care plans. Mack didn't name his critical Republican opponents, George LeMieux and Adam Hasner, who have had government-spending issues of their own.
Mack's on-again, off-again relationship with earmarks is a lesson in how Congress works, and how Republican candidates have had to adjust to an increasingly conservative electorate.
Representatives and senators often lament spending and earmarks, but then they'll try to stuff the budget with them. Sometimes they vote for other members' earmarks to ensure their own pass. Sometimes they'll get other members to sponsor their earmarks to avoid leaving their own fingerprints. Other times, they'll say their earmarks were needed for their community, but call earmarks from other members wasteful.
Despite his criticisms of Nelson, Mack joined with the Democrats to earmark federal spending. Also, Mack has joined Nelson and a majority of Congress to vote for appropriations bills stuffed with 28,000 earmarks worth $87 billion since 2006, according to an analysis of his votes and data from the yearly "Congressional Pig Book" produced by the conservative group Citizens Against Government Waste.
Mack has directly helped earmark 33 hometown spending projects that total at least $199 million, according to information from his office and a database of federal earmarks maintained by the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Mack disputes one earmark attributed to him, in 2007, by the former House budget chairman, Republican Don Young of Alaska, who accused the representative of disavowing an earmark in Bonita Springs after it became controversial.
Some of Mack's known earmarks were co-sponsored with Nelson as well as other members from Florida. Unlike Republicans, Nelson balked at a new ban on earmarks, saying they were good for the community because they ensure the state gets more of its fair share of tax money.
"Sen. Nelson still hasn't learned that he's got to stop spending to cut the deficit and balance the budget," said Mack, who says that his own earmarks amounted to "a fair return of taxpayer dollars to Southwest Florida."
But on 26 occasions, Mack voted to keep $2.9 billion in specific earmarks — many of which were nowhere near his district. Nearly 99 percent of the money was for defense earmarks.
Mack also voted against removing $1 million in earmarks for the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, $20 million for a Missouri Research Institute or $500,000 for a city pool in Banning just outside the California congressional district of Mack's wife, Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, says Mack's situation — voting for earmarks sponsored in other states — was common for lawmakers because it was the way Congress worked.
"Leadership used earmarks to punish and reward members," Ellis said. "Members were scared to vote against others' earmarks because they all lived in the same glass house."
Said Mack: "I never exchanged votes." He said the previous votes were under "the old system. And we worked on a moratorium on earmarks."
Mack's earmarks are wildly popular with his constituents like Collier County's government, the Marine Industries Association of Collier County, Florida Gulf Coast University and local firefighters.
The earmarked projects that Mack clearly sponsored in his district also ran the gamut: $2.5 million to help combat citrus canker; $333,000 for the Watershed Research Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University; $143,000 for a botanical-research lab at the Thomas Edison and Ford Winter Estates.
At times in his career, Mack boasted of his earmarking. He sent out press releases highlighting the hometown spending. In 2008, the Fort Myers News Press and Naples Daily News praised him, the former detailing how he was "bringing home the federal bacon." Mack linked to it on his website, conniemack.com. Today, conniemack.com has few details about Mack, but fashions him as a cutter of taxes and spending.
Early in his career, Mack was more likely to let earmarks slide. He voted against a number of amendments offered by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who in spring 2006 began trying to stop earmarks.
After Democrats won the House in 2006, more Republicans began voting for Flake's antiearmark amendments more consistently — including Mack. After Obama's 2008 election, Republicans became even more outraged with debt and spending — key issues that helped them win back the House last year.
Even if earmarks were completely eliminated, the savings would be slight. The $15.9 billion in earmarks in 2010 represented one-half of 1 percent of the $3.5 trillion federal budget that year.
But the antiearmark rhetoric has proved to be good politics.
One of Mack's opponents, George LeMieux, boasts he never submitted an earmark request in the 16 months he served as a U.S. senator after being appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist. LeMieux, though, didn't withdraw the earmarks sponsored by his predecessor, Sen. Mel Martinez.
Like Mack, LeMieux also voted for spending measures loaded with other lawmakers' earmarks, and voted to stop an effort to strip earmarks out of the Save America's Treasures program, an earmark magnet.
And while LeMieux publicly bashed Obama's stimulus, he worked behind the scenes in an effort to secure hundreds of millions in transportation funding for the state. He, too, said he was getting a "fair share" for Florida.
Another Republican Senate candidate, Adam Hasner, served as the state House Republican leader and was associated with $57 million in earmarks in the Florida budget. He also voted for budgets balanced with federal stimulus money that Mack voted against. The stimulus money was politically forced on legislators by Crist, who said the money was Florida's "fair share."
At least one of Mack's earmarks, the dredging of the Gordon Pass leading to Naples Bay, dovetails with Obama's stimulus program. Mack earmarked about $1.4 million for preliminary designs, engineering and permitting for the dredging. The actual cost of the dredging — about $880,000 — was paid by Obama's stimulus act.
Other earmarks coincided with the business interests of political contributors. Mack has received about $8,150 in political contributions from employees of Bonita Bay Group since 2004, when it sought to develop land along Burnt Store Road.
In 2008 and 2009 Mack submitted two earmarks worth about $576,000 to help widen the road for hurricane evacuation purposes. Nelson, who has received at least $900 from the development company, submitted one of the earmark requests in the Senate.
Tina Matte, a spokeswoman for the company, said it was a "fallacy" to suggest the contributions were linked to Mack's earmarks or the road, which is used by many.
"Did company executives make contributions to Connie Mack? Yes. Did the contributions have a specific project or related goal in mind? No," Matte said. She said Mack deserved the support because he "has been a great advocate for his entire congressional district in Southwest Florida."
Mack said he's trying to do right by his constituents, but earmarks needed to stop for now.
"That was the old system. And we worked hard to change it," he said.