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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan September 9, 2010

Obama says Republican Congresses used lots of earmarks

President Barack Obama has been making a case against Republicans in Congress, hoping to help Democrats in the midterm elections.

One of his points is that the Democrats' policies on the economy are better than the Republicans.

"Along with tax cuts for the wealthy, the other party's main economic proposal is that they'll stop government spending," Obama said. "Of course, they are right to be concerned about the long-term deficit -– if we don't get a handle on it soon, it can endanger our future. And at a time when folks are tightening their belts at home, I understand why a lot of Americans feel it's time for government to show some discipline too.

"But let's look at the facts. When these same Republicans –- including Mr. Boehner –- were in charge, the number of earmarks and pet projects went up, not down."

"Mr. Boehner" is Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader. Obama mentioned him by name about half a dozen times in his speech on Sept. 8, 2010.

We knew earmarks had gone up during the Bush administration, but we weren't sure how they tracked Republican majorities in Congress. Republicans held control of Congress for most of the period from 1995 to 2006. (In 2001, Democrats briefly re-took control of the Senate but lost it again in 2003.) So we decided to check it out.

Generally speaking, earmarks are spending that individual members of Congress request for particular programs or projects. Earmarks usually don't go through the normal vetting processes to make sure the projects are worthy. They're often considered a perk for members of Congress to fund their favorite projects.

We turned to Taxpayers for Common Sense, an nonpartisan advocacy group that fights wasteful spending in Congress. The group opposes earmarks because they circumvent normal budget processes, crowd out funding for merit-based projects and invite corruption. We asked vice president Steve Ellis whether earmarks went up, not down, under the Republican-controlled Congresses.

"Totally true," Ellis said. "Certainly under the Republicans there was a big rise in earmarks." The high mark was  fiscal 2005, the last fiscal year before Democrats won control, when Congress passed bills with approximately 16,000 earmarks, Ellis said.

We were able to find other sources that agreed with Ellis. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service documented increasing earmarks in different parts of appropriations bills in its report Earmarks in Appropriation Acts: FY1994, FY1996, FY1998, FY2000, FY2002, FY2004, FY2005.

The conservative Heritage Foundation included a striking chart on earmarks in its Federal Spending by the Numbers 2010 report. It reported a slightly different number of earmarks, at approximately 14,000 earmarks in 2005. But that was the largest number of earmarks between 1991 and 2010, and a significant increase from 1994, when there were fewer than 2,000.

We asked Ellis why earmarks increased so steadily during the years Republicans controlled Congress, and he said there were several factors at work. Prior to Republican control, Ellis said, Democrats reserved earmarks for committee chairman and other powerful leaders. Under Republicans, more rank-and-file members of Congress were allowed to insert earmarks into bills. The Republicans allowed Democrats to insert earmarks as well, so Democrats were not so quick to criticize what the Republicans were doing, he said. Finally, special interests got better at lobbying members of Congress, using new technology like cell phones and Blackberrys to communicate with members as legislation was being put together.

That new technology, though, also allowed citizens to document and share information about earmarks, which led to widespread outrage that resulted in earmark reforms when Democrats won control of Congress in 2006, bringing more transparency to the process.

"The more people could look at earmarks and analyze them, the more they could see what Congress was doing and criticize it," Ellis said.

But transparency on earmarks doesn't mean earmarks have gone away. During the campaign, Obama promised to reduce earmarks to $7.8 billion a year, what they were at in 1994. Here at PolitiFact, we rated that Promise Broken. The last budget for fiscal year 2010 included 9,499  earmarks worth $15.9 billion, according to an analysis from Taxpayers for Common Sense.

We should note that earlier this year, House Republicans voluntarily agreed to a one-year moratorium on earmarks. House Democrats agreed to a ban on earmarks that benefit for-profit companies but not on earmarks for local government projects or nonprofit projects. Senators of both parties continue to earmark.

And finally, it's important to note that other Republicans may like earmarking, but Boehner is not among them. In 2009, we fact-checked his statement, "I don't do earmarks. I've never done one," and rated it True. He hasn't taken an earmark since he was elected to Congress in 1990.

Boehner's staff also pointed out that Boehner was not in leadership for all of the years Republicans controlled Congress; he did not have a leadership position between 1998 and 2006. And in 2006, the year Boehner was majority leader, earmarks declined from the 2005 high, they said.

Getting back to our rating, Obama said that "When these same Republicans – including Mr. Boehner – were in charge, the number of earmarks and pet projects went up, not down." Earmarks increased dramatically between 1995 and 2006, so we find Obama's statement that earmarks went up, not down, to be correct. But he also singles out Boehner by name, when Boehner didn't take any earmarks and wasn't in leadership for most of those years. So we rate Obama's statement Mostly True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Interview with Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense

Taxpayers for Common Sense, Earmarks and Earmarking: Frequently Asked Questions, Feb. 17, 2010

Congressional Research Service, Earmarks in Appropriation Acts: FY1994, FY1996, FY1998, FY2000, FY2002, FY2004, FY2005, Jan. 26, 2006

The Heritage Foundation, Federal Spending by the Numbers, 2010

The Hill, Dem earmark ban would still allow a lot of spending to continue, March 13, 2010

The Washington Post, House Republicans say they will reject all earmarks, March 11, 2010

The Almanac of American Politics 2010

E-mail interview with Michael Steel, spokesman for John Boehner

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

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Obama says Republican Congresses used lots of earmarks

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