Newt Gingrich: Big Spender

Gingrich oversaw earmark explosion in House during speakership.

December 15, 2011, 2:06 PM

Dec. 15, 2011 -- Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich likes to tout his record for restraining government spending, but funding for good, old-fashioned, pork-barrel projects exploded while he was speaker of the House.

ABC News has taken a look back at Gingrich's record on the issue of so-called earmarks -- a common congressional practice of inserting taxpayer money for special projects into big appropriations bills -- and found a startling spike under Gingrich's leadership as speaker. Not only did earmark spending in Congress increase between 1994 and 1998, when he departed, the overall dollar amount roughly doubled.

In 1994, Congress inserted 1,318 earmarks into federal spending bills, costing taxpayers $7.8 billion, according to Citizens Against Government Waste. Total spending on earmarks peaked three years later to a whopping $14.5 billion. By 1998, Gingrich's last year as speaker, the total number of projects reached 2,143 at a cost of $13.2 billion.

"Speaker Gingrich set in motion the largest explosion of earmarks in the history of Congress," said Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste.

Outcry over the practice of earmarking led Congress in 2009 to require that all earmark requests, along with a justification, be posted on the sponsoring lawmaker's website when they are submitted to the Appropriations Committee for consideration.

The Memo: Pet Projects as Political Weapons

Behind the spending increase was a policy crafted by Gingrich himself. Several news reports from 1996 point to a memo he wrote on May 29, 1996, outlining a strategy to use earmark spending to shore up Republicans facing tough re-election campaigns.

The Gingrich memo, entitled "Proposed Principles for Analyzing Each Appropriations Bill," instructed the chairmen of House Appropriation subcommittees to consider several factors in spending bills.

Several news reports at the time, including a 1996 cover story in Congressional Quarterly, quoted the memo's questions to the chairmen from the speaker.

"Among them, 'Are there any Republican members who could be severely hurt by the bill or need a specific district item in the bill?'" Congressional Quarterly reported.

The Associated Press published a similar story the following month titled, "Republicans Using Control of Congress as Re-Election Weapon"

"Gingrich in a memo earlier this year [1996] directed that spending bills be crafted with an eye toward how they might help Republican incumbents," the AP reported.

University of Virginia professor James Savage, who has chronicled the history of earmarking in his book, "Funding Science in America," pointed out Gingrich's earmark strategy not only went against the spirit of his "Contract with America," and of Gingrich's "hero," President Ronald Reagan, but also institutionalized the practice in Congress.

"The significance of the memo is that it really opened the door for earmarking on a huge scale," Savage told ABC News. "With approval from higher echelon to use it as a tool for reelection, the size and scope of earmarking really exploded in 1980s and then continued to grow."

Fast forward to 2009, when Gingrich's organization, American Solutions for Winning the Future, put forth a 12-point economic recovery plan that suggested "eliminating Congressional earmarks and wasteful pork-barrel spending."

Gingrich's Conservative Problem

Gingrich's big spending track record is just one more thing in a long list of complaints about Gingrich from the right. As the former speaker is relentlessly attacked over the coming days and weeks, the most devastating line of attack in a Republican primary may be that he is insufficiently conservative and that GOP primary voters may want a conservative alternative to Romney.

Current House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has been careful not to take sides in the Republican primary, was asked by Politico's Mike Allen about Gingrich.

"I'm not sure he's as conservative as some people think he is," Boehner responded.

Like many Republicans who have been around since the 1990s, Boehner has a long, tortured history with Gingrich. His response, however, is the latest indication that Gingrich has a big problem that goes beyond his personal life, his famous lack of discipline or what presidential rival Mitt Romney described as his "zany" ideas: Many conservatives just don't trust him.

Boehner did add that although Gingrich is not as conservative as most people think, he is a conservative. Then, asked if Gingrich would be a good president, Boehner ducked the question.

"Boehner's recalcitrance underscores the reason Gingrich was not the first card flipped, but the fourth, in conservatives' search for a better hand," said Gary Langer, President of Langer & Associates.

The list of conservatives aggressively opposed to the prospect of a President Gingrich goes on:

The National Review published a scathing editorial Wednesday against Gingrich because of his "impulsiveness, his grandiosity, his weakness for half-baked (and not conservative) ideas."

"Each week we see the same traits that weakened Republicans from 1995 through 1998," the magazine's editors wrote. "Gingrich has always said he wants to transform the country. He appears unable to transform, or even govern, himself. He should be an adviser to the Republican Party, but not again its head."

Glenn Beck has been ranting against Gingrich for days, suggesting that he is no better than Barack Obama. Another right wing personality, radio show host Michael Savage, went so far as to offer Gingrich $1 million to drop out of the race.