Stung by charges that the economic stimulus bill that passed last month was packed with pork, Democrats are claiming the big 2009 spending bill they're now considering has a relatively small number of earmarks.
Many news outlets have cited Democratic estimates that there are only $3.8 billion in earmarks in the $410 billion bill, which is known as the Omnibus because it is the product of nine bills that failed to pass last fall. But Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent group that tracks federal spending, says the number is $7.7 billion.
Why the big difference?
The Democrats count the number differently.
Before we explain, here's a little context. These numbers aren't just a matter of arcane bookkeeping. They are significant because earmarks have become a key political issue. As a candidate, President Obama promised to reduce earmarks to the levels from 1994, the year that Republicans took control of Congress. So it's important to measure them accurately.
The Democrats' $3.8 billion figure has been widely reported. We found it in Congressional Quarterly , the New York Times , the Associated Press and USA Today , among others. Most stories attribute the number to the Democratic leadership in Congress, while USA Today specifically cited Kirstin Brost, a spokeswoman for the Democratic staff of the House Appropriations Committee.
Brost told us that she specified to reporters that the number was for "non-project-based" federal programs, such as water projects for dams, navigational improvements and beach renourishment. These programs have such a high percentage of earmarks that Democrats exclude them from their totals. Their reasoning is that if they promise to cut earmarks by a certain percentage, as they have in the past few years, these programs will be disproportionately cut.
But Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said they should be included in the definition of earmarks because the projects being excluded meet Congress' own definitition — the funding is requested by lawmakers for specific projects that in most cases are in their districts or home states. (For more on the definition, see this earlier PolitiFact item on White House claims that there were no earmarks in the stimulus bill.)
"According to Congress, these are earmarks. So to say there are $3.8 billion in earmarks (in the Omnibus) is misleading at best," Ellis said.
Ellis invoked a weight-loss analogy to explain what the Democrats are doing.
"It’s easier to make your weight loss goals if you don’t count your rear end," he said.
Brost says she has been precise with reporters that she was referring to the "non-project-based" numbers. But judging from the number of times we found the number cited as the Democratic estimate for earmarks, her nuance was not caught by reporters or by Democrats who have cited the figure.
Either way, the number is not a fair account of the total earmarks. We find the Taxpayers for Common Sense estimate to be right and we find the statement False.