They may not all be as costly or as widely condemned as Senator Ted Stevens' infamous $223 million "Bridge to Nowhere" but earmarks are back with a vengeance.
After fizzling in the wake of congressional scandals over the misuse of earmarks before the 2006 midterm elections, the number and dollar amount of pork-barrel projects have increased so far this year, according to budget watchdog groups.
This year's defense authorization bills in the House contained earmarks worth $9.9 billion, an increase of 29 percent from last year, according to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense. In the Senate version of the bills, the number of earmarks increased 40 percent from last year but the dollar amount fell slightly.
Earmarks in the House version of the labor, health and human services appropriations bills for the 2009 fiscal year soared to $618.8 million from $277.9 million in the 2008 bill, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.
Longtime foes of such targeted spending attribute the apparent increase to the fact that it's an election year. "It's the currency of reelection," says Tom Schatz, director of CAGW. "What can I do so you will vote for me?"
Though critics claim that earmarks are prone to abuse and contribute to out-of-control spending, many members of Congress view them as an effective way to steer federal money to worthwhile projects in their local districts.
"Banning all earmarks as my critics would like to do, would put federal funding in the hands of Washington bureaucrats—many of whom have never been to South Carolina, let alone the rural counties and communities I represent," said House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) in a statement responding to questions about a report claiming some of his earmarks went to groups with ties to his family members. "These are communities which were systematically denied state and federal resources for decades."
Some of the earmarks in the spending bills highlighted by the watchdog groups include $870,000 to protect a red wolf breeding facility, $500,000 for methamphetamine prevention in the Mark Twain National Forest, $700,000 for beluga whale research at Alaska's Cook Inlet, $400,000 for horseshoe crab research in Virginia, $115,000 to train "the next generation of weather forecasters" at San Jose State University and $700,000 for atmospheric detection equipment for the sheriff in Jacksonville, Florida.
Several senior members of Congress, who have the clout to push through more set-asides, have received campaign contributions from companies that receive earmarks.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, supported a $4 million appropriation for defense contractor Digital Fusion, the employees of which have donated $24,000 to the Congressman.
"Congressman Reyes requested funding for this project after consulting with Army officials at Fort Bliss, who indicated their support for the project noting the training benefit for soldiers. Any suggestion that Rep. Reyes secured federal funding for political reasons is simply false," a spokesman for Reyes said in a statement emailed to ABC News.