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.
Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Indiana) set aside $1 million for cybersecurity software from Cimcor, an Indiana company whose employees have contributed $20,750 to his campaigns and his political action committee since 2003, according to campaign finance databases. Visclosky's campaign also paid the company $5,000 in May 2005 for computer security upgrades.
"Although there may appear to be correlation between congressional earmarks and contributors, no real connection exists," said a spokesman for Vislosky. "[Contributing] has absolutely no bearing on whether he will request a earmark or the funding level of that earmark." As for the campaign expenditure, the spokesman explained that Cimcor is "a local company that provides good computer services," that the camaign paid a market rate and reported the transaction legally.
Other Congressmen seem undeterred by previous scandals in their use of earmarks.
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who was reportedly the subject of a federal investigation into the ties between his office and a lobbying firm that employed some of his former staffers, authorized $9.76 million for a lifelong learning center at the Marine Corps base at Twentynine Palms, California in his home district. The town of Twentynine Palms, which has benefited from previous earmarks supported by Lewis, was subpoenaed last year as part of that investigation.
According to a spokesman for Lewis, the Congressman denies any wrongdoing and has never been contacted by the Justice Department regarding any investigation. The new learning center is intended for Marines who live and work at the base and will be available for use by the local community in Twentynine Palms.
Last year, SenatorStevens (R-Alaska) appropriated $243,000 for a marine ecosystem education program at Alaska Sealife Center, according to Citizens for Government Waste.
A previous $1.6 million earmark for the center is being investigated by the FBI and inspectors general from the Interior and Commerce Departments amid allegations that it was engineered to lead to the purchase of property owned by the Senator's former aide, Trevor McCabe, according to the Alaska Daily News. Since it opened in 1998, Stevens has reportedly secured more than $50 million in earmarks for the nonprofit facility.
A spokesman for Stevens did not return calls for comment.
Congressman Clyburn steered four earmarks to groups connected to friends or family members, according to the Myrtle Beach Sun News.
Among them are $784,000 for the planning and design of the International African American Museum in Charleston, where his nephew Derrick Ballard is one of the lead architects, and $229,000 for an obesity program at the Charles. R. Drew Wellness Center in Columbia, where his daughter Angela was the marketing and membership director, according to the paper.
In a statement, Clyburn vowed that he vets "each earmark for any improper connection to friends or family members" but also noted, "Should I deny a request from the City of Columbia for funding to the Drew Wellness Center to combat childhood obesity because my daughter ran the membership program there at one time?"
In a point-by-point rebuttal to the Sun News article, Clyburn noted that he resigned from the museum's board when the design team was selected to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest. And he emphasized that his daughter, who has since left her job in the wake of the story, has no connection with the facility's youth obesity program.
Since bills are still winding their way through the legislative process this summer, the final number and dollar amount of earmarks may change. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey recently promised that the number and cost of earmarks this year would not increase compared to last year.
"The meat grinder is still turning and so we haven't what seen what the sausage looks like," quips Taxpayers for Common Sense vice president Steve Ellis.