By Carrie Budoff Brown
A multilevel operation aimed at harnessing the power of the Internet represents the most coordinated attack yet on earmarks, considered a cornerstone of legislative dealmaking for the way they have been used to induce votes and curry favor with supporters.
Once the domain of a few ostracized junior senators, earmark targeting is now in vogue, with Senate Republican leaders eager to gain traction in the minority.
They are embracing veteran critics of earmarking, such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who are, in turn, pressing their case on six social networking sites and with an online petition and a newly formed caucus.
Nonpartisan groups aid the cause by dumping databases onto the Web, nudging anybody with a computer to play detective and call in tips on egregious-looking earmarks.
"We got a tag team going: people on the outside, people running blogs, producers in talk radio trying to find some of these earmarks," said DeMint, who also has two to five members of his staff scouring bills at all times.
Given the entrenched nature of earmarks, the victories on amendments targeting specific projects have been few. But that's not really the point, say Republican senators and aides.
"The goal is not to win these votes as much as it is to educate the public about the real problem, which is Congress' refusal to prioritize spending in a responsible manner," said Coburn's spokesman, John Hart.
The number of earmarks swelled from 546 projects worth $3.1 billion in 1991 to almost 14,000 projects worth $27 billion in 2005, according to Citizens Against Government Waste in Washington, an early pioneer in providing data on special-interest projects.
The figures dropped last year to 2,658 projects worth $13 billion.
But by then, the political damage was done. Voters reacted to earmarks-for-contributions scandals and headlines about bloated Washington spending by giving Democrats control of Congress.
Looking for a way back, Republicans see earmarks as an effective instrument in a broader attack on Democratic fiscal management, although it should be noted that most members of both parties indulge in the practice.
Coburn, a first-term senator, can be credited with writing the anti-earmark playbook, now dog-eared, replicated and amplified by his congressional colleagues.
It involves hours of staff research, a meeting or two at the highest level of the Senate Republican hierarchy, e-mails to generate buzz with key conservative bloggers, a mention in the mainstream media and, ultimately, a challenge to the special-interest project through an amendment.
They start with a piece of legislation, highlighters and a few cubicles' worth of staffers.
They scrub a bill from the opening paragraph to the last, looking for key words like "center" (members of Congress love to fund centers of all stripes obesity, "vitality," sea-life centers) or eye-popping ones like "ornamental shrub" or "spinach."
Coburn joins in the search, too, marking up conference reports on his plane rides from Oklahoma to Washington.
From there, the staff compiles a list of potential targets, some of which need more research.
They call government agencies for information. They search Google for supporting documents. They narrow down the list again.
The staff might look for a correlation between campaign contributions and those who benefit from the earmark.
Senators aim for the perfect earmark a high-profile sponsor, a recipient worthy of a little mocking, and maybe evidence of a questionable campaign donation.
They will then find a more altruistic cause for the earmarked funds and draft an amendment proposing to shift the money from, say, a museum commemorating the 1969 Woodstock festival to programs benefiting pregnant women, mothers and infants.
"He directs us to target earmarks that are wasteful and that tell a story to the American people," Hart said.
The Woodstock museum hit all the marks, from Democratic sponsors New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton who united Republicans against the project to campaign contributions that cast a shadow over the project.
Notably, for the first time, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), led the floor fight with Coburn, reflecting a more engaged but still largely behind-the-scenes role for the GOP leadership.
Coburn succeeded last month in killing the earmark, receiving media attention reminiscent of his 2005 assault on Alaska's "bridge to nowhere."
DeMint has been at Coburn's side since the bridge fight but stepped up his involvement after the dismal 2006 election.
He decided to stop seeking more earmarks for South Carolina. "I realized after a while that I was contributing to the problem," he said.
He began offering more spending amendments of his own. His targets: spinach growers, the AFL-CIO and the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York.
And in the past month, DeMint expanded his reach by establishing a presence on six social networking sites Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, Eventful and Flickr.
"We saw clearly during the immigration debate that people on the outside, if well-informed, can change the inside," DeMint said.
"We are using that power to change what people are doing here. We want to get the information out as much as we can."
His increased Web presence coincided with the launch of an online petition "100,000 Strong for Earmark Reform" and a congressional caucus, Reagan21, in which members must decline to take any new earmarks.
Also in the past two months, the Sunlight Foundation and Taxpayers for Common Sense created an online database with comment boards and research tools, essentially mainstreaming a practice once reserved for opposition researchers and journalists.
There are 500 account holders, who have begun building online dossiers of earmark recipients.
"Anytime there is more transparency and more people engaged, it does change the way Congress behaves," said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation.