McCain and many tea partiers complain that earmarks are a way for lawmakers to funnel tax dollars to pet projects without justification or oversight. But some argue a proposed alternative would be worse.
Earmarks constitute only 1 percent of federal spending, but that is still a big number. When Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., took over as speaker of the house, she promised to bring greater transparency to the process.
"Our first order of business is passing the toughest congressional ethics reform in history," she said in 2006.
Today, anyone can go online and find every one of the 39,000 earmarks requested for next year, the members of Congress making the request, how much they want and what they want to spend it on.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., wants a total of $110 million next year including $2 million for the Chabot Space and Science Center and $3.5 million for children's hospital and $41 million to build an extension of Berkeley lab in Oakland's old town.
"All of those requests I made because we need that, our communities deserve that," Lee said.
Lee says earmarks are good. ABC7's political analyst believes the alternative will be worse.
"It won't be called an earmark and it won't appear as an earmark but it'll be what you might call a stealth earmark," Bruce Cain said.
Cain says one way it could happen would be for a member of Congress to write the qualifications for government grant so that there would be only one possible recipient.
"And what will happen is it will become more of an under the table process that will be harder to monitor and harder to figure out whose requesting it and why it's going to certain places," Cain said.
That is not what Pelosi promised when she took over the House, but it is the likely scenario for replacing earmarks because the demand for federal money from congressional districts across the country is not going away.
"Let me tell you, my community needs this federal money as badly as any others," Lee said.