Congress earmarks grow in dollars but not appropriations

WASHINGTON — Congressional reformers contend they corrupt the process, and President Obama has vowed to sharply reduce them. But Congress devoted nearly $16 billion in earmarks to lawmakers' pet projects in their home states and districts last year — a slight increase over the previous year, although the overall number of earmarks decreased.

For fiscal 2010, Congress included 9,413 earmarks in the annual appropriations bills that fund the federal government, down from 10,363 in 2009, according to a report released Wednesday by Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent watchdog dedicated to rooting out waste. Those earmarks accounted for $15.9 billion, up from $15.6 billion last year, the group found. That represents less than 2 percent of overall government spending appropriated by Congress each year.

Many in Congress defend their constitutional right to appropriate federal dollars — often inserted into legislation at the discretion of a single lawmaker, issuing what amounts to a no-bid contract — but critics say the practice rewards lawmakers who have influence because of their seniority on appropriations panels.

After a series of scandals involving earmarks, Congress passed rules requiring lawmakers to post the letters of every earmark they are seeking on their congressional Web sites each spring. Obama, who sought earmarks in his first two years in the Senate but later disavowed them, has asked Congress to post all earmark requests on one easy-to-search Web site.

With fewer Republicans pursuing the line items, they accounted for 34 percent of the dollar value for earmarks dished out on a partisan basis, down from 43 percent in 2008.

Still, the largest beneficiary of earmarks continued to be a Republican, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, who took in nearly $500 million in earmarks that he sponsored or co-sponsored. In the House, three of the five largest recipients were Republicans.