As a congressman in the House, Newt Gingrich didn’t just request earmarks: He also fundamentally changed and expanded their use.
Gingrich’s willingness to allow non–Appropriations Committee House members to push for earmarks “really changed how members viewed earmarks,” says Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) president Thomas Schatz, noting that House members had previously had to appeal to the Appropriations Committee to grant earmarks. “So [when] earmarking became more widespread, it was going to a lot more members.”
“He really set in motion the largest explosion of earmarks in the history of Congress,” Schatz added of Gingrich.
Gingrich embraced the new approach in 1996, arguing that vulnerable GOP House members could use earmarks as a way to help them keep their seats. “Wary that Democrats would regain House control after only two years in the minority, re-election-conscious Republicans returned to one of the oldest means of winning votes: buying them,” wrote the Washington Monthly in 1997. “The Wall Street Journal reported last year that Newt Gingrich sent a memo to appropriators urging them to give special consideration to projects requested by their vulnerable freshmen.”
“Under the Democrats, before the 1994 election, earmarks were really the provenance of the powerful appropriators,” observes Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “One of the things that the Republican majority under Speaker Gingrich did was they democratized earmarks. They made it so that it was available to the rank-and-file lawmaker.”
Earmarks nearly doubled under Gingrich’s tenure as speaker, according to an analysis done by CAGW. In fiscal year 1994, $7.8 billion in earmarks was included in the budget. By fiscal year 1997, that number had skyrocketed to $14.5 billion. The funds allotted to earmarks tapered off a little by 1999, when earmarks totaled $12 billion, but they would never again drop to 1994 levels. The 2010 budget included $16.5 billion in earmarks, according to CAGW.
And Gingrich wasn’t averse to snapping up earmarks himself. While congressional members weren’t required to attach their names to earmark requests until 2007, Gingrich has admitted publicly two earmarks he’d requested. “$112,400,000 added by the House for two KC-130J transport planes at the request of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). As an expensive going away present, the planes will be built in his congressional district,” reported CAGW in its 1999 “Pig Book.” The 1998 edition revealed that Gingrich had successfully nabbed $3 million for a “21st Century National Security Study Group” that would “do what is already being done at federal civilian and military agencies and countless other privately funded research institutes across the country; that is, to discern future national security concerns and the appropriate implementation strategies.”
Now, the Romney campaign is hoping Gingrich’s record on earmarks will prove to be a turn-off for voters. Twice in the past week, the campaign has drafted top surrogates to do conference calls with reporters about the former House speaker’s earmark record. “I think all of us recognize that Newt is the father of contemporary earmarking,” said fiscal-conservative Arizona congressman Jeff Flake. “Earmarks exploded during the Newt era. And not just the number, but the fact that members, by that time, after the Newt era, kind of considered earmarks their entitlement.”
In another call, John McCain aggressively bashed Gingrich’s willingness to use earmarks. “I served in the House of Representatives with Newt Gingrich,” the Arizona senator said, ”and when I went on to the United States Senate, I saw these earmarks explode. I saw the corruption also that resulted from it. It was infuriating and there was a few of us who stood up to it at the time.”
In recent years, Gingrich has changed his tune on earmarks. Gingrich told the Greenville News in a 2010 interview that Congress should refrain from earmarks for two years, and praised South Carolina senator Jim DeMint for having the “moral courage” to stand firm in his stand against earmarks. A couple of weeks later, Gingrich told Human Events, “I strongly support the idea of — at a minimum — a two- or three- year withdrawal from earmarks, to govern without them for a while, just to break the habit.” And he’s not the only candidate left in the race who has an earmark problem: Rick Santorum has also requested earmarks, while Ron Paul has a penchant for requesting earmarks but not voting for the final spending bill.
But Ellis, from Taxpayers for Common Sense, thinks that if Gingrich is going to tout his fiscal successes, voters should also be aware of his role in the history of earmarks.
“He’s taking credit for balancing the budget in those years,” Ellis says. “If you’re going to take credit for the macro-issues, then you’re going to have to take the criticism for those same macro-issues. Where I don’t think he necessarily singlehandedly jacked up the number of earmarks, he certainly presided over it.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.