According to the Department of Transportation, the number of Congressional earmarks increased by1150% between 1996 and 2005 and the monetary value of those earmarks increased 314%. While Republicans have a spotty record on the issue, conservatives have long fought their corrupting and inflationary influence. the practice declined some in 2007, but with vulnerable seats to defend in an election year, the practice is back with a vengeance in 2008. Some in Washington have always underplayed the importance of the issue, but now that a shortfall in the federal Highway Trust Fund is upon us, the real pain earmarking causes is beginning to be felt.

Yesterday Arizona became one of the first states to suspend construction on major infrastructure projects pending a fix in the federal funding shortfall. A big part of the expected highway shortfall: earmarks. Heritage’s Ron Utt explained the cause of the impending shortfall this July:

The pending deficit is a consequence of flaws in the most recent highway reauthorization bill (SAFETEA-LU) enacted into law in August 2005 covering all federal highway and transit spending until September 2009. In an effort to provide funding for the more than $24 billion worth of earmarks included in SAFETEA-LU, Congress authorized levels of spending well in excess of the fuel tax revenues expected to flow into the trust fund, thereby drawing down the fund’s balance to support the excess spending. Although the leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I) hoped that the fund’s balance would be sufficient to make it through the current reauthorization period, many independent transportation analysts doubted that would happen, and their dire projections have been proven correct.

For years members of Congress have been diverting money from their states transportation budgets to pay for their own vanity projects. But now that budgets are tight, states are beginning to miss that money that they need for more essential infrastructure. Washington’s solution? More spending of course. Congress wants to spend another $8 billion to bail the fund out. Some conservatives are fighting back.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC):

We must stop wasteful earmarks for bike paths and museums that divert critical funding away from priority roads and bridges. And we must immediately end the irrational bans on American oil and gas exploration so we can reduce the cost of gas at the pump. Unless we enact these two necessary reforms, we will face this same problem again in the near future.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ):

Congress spent more money on earmarks than there was money to pay for them. Instead of taking money from the general fund for these earmarks, Congress needs to go on a pork diet.