05/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Earmark Ban Being Debated By Democratic Leaders

"As they try to reclaim the ethical high ground during a difficult stretch, House Democratic leaders are considering a dramatic move: declaring a party-wide ban on earmarks this year," the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported on Monday.

The idea, floated by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a leadership huddle Tuesday, is for House Democrats to outflank their Republican counterparts, who have mulled and rejected such a moratorium in recent years.

The discussion was brief and inconclusive, sources with knowledge of the session said. Leaders decided they needed to explore it further with Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.). But if top Democratic brass decides to embrace the ban, it would likely have far-reaching consequences -- and meet stiff resistance from some corners of the Democratic Caucus that cherish earmarks as a constitutionally protected legislative prerogative and a political necessity in an increasingly hostile environment for incumbents.

Within hours, senators from both parties were already trying to advance the idea. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) announced he "would try to force a Senate vote on a one-year earmark ban."

"Nancy Pelosi and I don't agree on many things," he said in a statement, "but if she's willing to take a stand for taxpayers, I'll work with her to put an end to the earmark favor factory."

Meanwhile, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) released a letter heartily endorsing the idea:

I was heartened by recent reports that House Democrats are considering banning earmarked spending in appropriations bills this year. I strongly endorse that effort, and urge you both to push for an end to this abusive practice in your respective caucuses.

Unauthorized congressional earmarks continue to be a serious problem. For all the lip service Congress pays to this issue, there are still thousands of earmarked spending provisions enacted every year. By one estimate, in 2004 alone more than $50 billion in earmarks were passed. Just last year, the Omnibus Appropriations bill for FY 2009 passed in March contained more than eight thousand earmarks costing $7 billion, and the Consolidated Appropriations bill for FY 2010 passed in December included nearly five thousand earmarks, costing $3.7 billion.

There is no excuse for a system that allows that kind of wasteful spending year after year. Not only does it squander taxpayers' money, it also undermines legitimate public policies, and aggravates the already massive budget deficits that risk our long-term economic growth.

Earmarking pet projects in appropriations bill continues only because it has bipartisan support. Once it loses bipartisan support, the abusive practice will end.

Under your leadership, I hope the two Democratic Caucuses will take the lead in putting an end to unauthorized earmarked spending in appropriations bills.