Washington -- Hoping to stir public outrage against a rival, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are brawling over who is responsible for the most "earmarks," special projects inserted into spending bills.
While the presidential hopefuls portray earmarks as a corrupting influence on politics and a waste of taxpayer funds, Connecticut lawmakers, among others, are taking a different view.
Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, calls earmarks "the most misunderstood thing in Congress."
"There's a difference between a 'bridge to nowhere' and funding for the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum," he said.
The "bridge to nowhere" was a project in a remote corner of Alaska that cost taxpayers millions and benefited just a handful of people. During the 2008 campaign, it became a symbol of waste and corruption and helped put an end to earmarks, at least temporarily.
The House and Senate established a two-year moratorium on these special projects in 2011. But next year, unless that moratorium is extended, lawmakers can once again seek money for pet projects.
Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks and criticizes earmarked spending, said if earmarks come back, there will be greater scrutiny of their merits.
"I'm clear-eyed that earmarks are going to come back in some form," he said.
But for now, in an election year, Ellis said earmarks are "radioactive,"
That's evident by the spat between GOP presidential candidates Romney and Santorum. Romney says that Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, secured millions of dollars in earmarks when he was in Congress. Santorum struck back by saying Romney, as a former Massachusetts governor, requested millions of dollars in earmarks from his state's congressional delegation.
Despite public distaste over earmarking, there are signs that lawmakers are frustrated with the ban on special projects.
Attempts to extend the moratorium earlier this month were firmly voted down in the Senate. Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, and Joseph Lieberman, an independent, voted with the majority that rejected an extension of the ban.
Connecticut lawmakers, as with those in other states, steered hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks to the state before the practice was suspended.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, sought millions of dollars to help Connecticut's defense industry and the submarine base in Groton. In 2010, Courtney secured $4.4 million for a dry deck for the Electric Boat Corp., $4 million for a turbine engine program at Pratt & Whitney and $5.6 million for an MK-48 torpedo magazine for the sub base.
Larson was also responsible for many defense-related projects, including $7.2 million for a project at Goodrich Pump & Engine Control Systems in West Hartford.
Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, helped win $3.2 million for a University of Connecticut Health Center program that helps soldiers recover from bone injuries, and he steered hundreds of thousands of dollars to other projects for his district.
As chairwomen of a House Agriculture subcommittee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, was responsible for more than $9 million in agriculture-related earmarks in 2010. They included $401,000 for the University of Connecticut's Food Marketing Policy Center, and $300,000 for the Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge.
The Pig Book, a compilation by earmarks by Citizens Against Government Waste, pointed out that some earmarks were inserted into spending bills anonymously, including $465 million put into a 2010 defense bill to continue development and purchase the first alternate engines for the Joint Strike Fighter. Those engines would compete with the engines Pratt & Whitney is constructing in Connecticut. In an ad, Pratt & Whitney called the appropriation "the mother of all earmarks."
In the 2010 Pig Book, Connecticut was ranked 25th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in "pork per capita." The book said the state received about $115.6 million in earmarks that year, or about $32.80 for each Connecticut resident.
Few say the days of a free-spending Congress will return, especially after "the bridge to nowhere" and recent revelations that lawmakers procured projects that increased the value of their homes and businesses and steered earmarks to groups that hired relatives.
Some conservative Republicans, especially those who espouse tea party ideas, will continue to fight against earmarks, which account for a fraction of 1 percent of the federal budget.
But members of Connecticut's congressional delegation say they could make a comeback, although in altered form.
"Earmarks had gotten out of control, and I think this cooling off period has been constructive," said Murphy.
Murphy wants a reformed system. But he said lawmakers know the needs of constituents better than federal agencies, which are now the only dispensers of federal funds, usually through merit-based grants.
"It doesn't serve my constituents well to have bureaucrats in Washington decide where all the money should be spent," Murphy said. "Congress should have a role."
DeLauro also said she would support a reformed system, possibly one that included a panel to scrutinize lawmaker requests.
Blumenthal, who came to Congress after the earmark ban, agreed that a new system is needed.
"Directing money to local projects is a good idea as long as the projects are worthwhile and it's done transparently and with accountability," he said.
According to The Center for Responsive Politics, Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, helped secure about $20 million in earmarks in 2010. But Himes said he's now "conflicted" about them.
"If there were a process to make sure members did not benefit from them and they were directed at clearly valuable projects, I think you have a very legitimate discussion on whether they should come back," he said.
For Larson, whose seniority would give him an advantage in the earmark chase, there's no doubt about the merits of special projects.
"If you have representative government, shouldn't I be representing the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum?" he said.