WASHINGTON - Members of Congress have become increasingly consumed with getting special projects for their districts, which is driving up spending, enriching lobbyists and hindering oversight, lawmakers and watchdog groups said at a hearing Thursday.
Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has authored legislation aimed at reducing congressional earmarks for home-state projects, said the number of such projects has "exploded under our watch as Republicans, and it's nothing to be proud of."
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, whose subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security hosted the hearing, said earmarks rose from 4,126 in 1994 to 15,877 in 2005. Last year, he said, earmarks totaled $64 billion.
Republicans have been in charge of both houses of Congress for nearly all of the past decade.
Coburn, who has fought unsuccessfully in the past several months to kill some lawmakers' projects, including the "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska and funding for private museums in Washington and Nebraska, said Thursday that earmarks were "a gateway drug on the road to spending addiction."
"One day, an otherwise frugal member votes for pork; the next day, he or she votes for a bloated spending bill or an entitlement expansion," he said. "After all, a 'no' vote might cut off access to earmarks."
Coburn, Flake and others said the growth in lobbyists in Washington has tracked with the increase in earmarks.
Sometimes, Flake said, lobbyists fill out forms intended for lawmakers to request special projects from the spending committees.