Oh, how a federal budget deficit of $1.3 trillion can spoil one's taste for pork.
Last year, in just one example among hundreds of Rep. Denny Rehberg bringing federal money home to Montana, he announced he had landed $500,000 in funding for Missoula's Watson Children's Shelter.
"The Watson Children Shelter fills a critical need in western Montana," Rehberg said at the time, "and I'm pleased I was able to secure this crucial funding to help make a real difference in the lives of Montana children."
But you don't hear Rehberg—whose $103.5 million in appropriation requests in fiscal year 2010 ranks eighth in the 435-member House of Representatives, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—boast of his pork procurements any more. The soon-to-be six-term congressman who sits on the House Appropriations Committee now says the country simply can't afford to continue the practice of earmarks.
"Earmarks represent the culture of spending that has led to record deficits and debts that are literally costing us our future," said Rehberg in a recent release. "The inclusion of pet projects creates incentives to vote for and pass bloated spending bills that don't otherwise pass the smell test."
Rehberg's reversal comes as House Republicans, fresh off a midterm election that saw them take control of the chamber, renew their voluntary ban on pet projects. And he hasn't been shy about espousing his new point of view. He regularly uses Twitter to urge his fellow Montana delegates, Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, to "buck up" and join him in banning earmarks. He called them out in a recent letter as among "the final holdouts of an antiquated spending culture where elected officials fight to spend more and more tax dollars."
But in a large and rural state like Montana, with its history of delegates famous—or notorious, depending on the point of view—for bringing home the bacon, that spending culture has been vital to thousands of public and private projects throughout the state.
Take the Watson Children's Shelter, which, thanks to Montana's congressional delegation, received $500,000 in funding last year from the U.S. Department of Justice and $625,000 through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money was used to construct a second facility that doubled the shelter's capacity to provide a safe environment for children who are victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment.
"They were critically important," Director Fran Albrecht says of the earmarks, "particularly during a time when we started a capital campaign when the economy was more stable, and then we entered a very difficult time as our needs were increasing, the needs for our services were increasing, and yet the availability of private dollars and foundation dollars began to decrease."
Albrecht walks a careful line when discussing the issue, and it reflects the dichotomy of the debate over earmarks playing out in Washington, D.C.
"I think earmarks need to be considered very carefully, and in our case we were deeply grateful for that federal funding, and it was put to use immediately and effectively," she says. "But I do think it's important to be sure that there isn't any wasteful spending. And I do think when we can bring federal dollars to our state that it helps our state, especially when it can be done in an effective manner."
Which is to say that earmarks are okay, except when they're wasteful—a mostly subjective determination. That considerable gray area is a big part of why Congress, and Rehberg specifically, will have such a difficult time reining in earmarks.
According to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, earmarks typically account for no more than 1 percent of the budget. But that 1 percent still amounts to a ton of money—about $16.5 billion in 2010. Rehberg extrapolates and argues the country could save $165 billion over the next 10 years if Congress bans earmarks.
"Only in Washington, D.C., is $165 billion in spending not a big deal," Rehberg says to those who dismiss the potential savings. "That's the problem with Congress. We need to change the culture of spending in Congress, and this is the first step."
But there's a problem with Rehberg's argument. Reducing earmarks doesn't necessarily reduce spending. As The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget explains, funds spared from earmarking wouldn't remain in the federal treasury because they're part of a pot of money slated to be spent, and would certainly be spent elsewhere if delegates didn't direct them to their districts.
"Nobody knows the needs of their district or their state as well as members of Congress, and they certainly know it far better than the bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.," says Pat Williams, a Democrat who served Montana for 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. "If you don't do earmarks for special needs, then what you're doing is turning that spending, in effect, over to the bureaucracy."
Williams' point, in essence, has been the argument Baucus and Tester have been making over the past few weeks in a bitter back-and-forth with Rehberg.