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Plenty of Projects, No Rules

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is advancing two pieces of legislation packed with billions of dollars worth of earmarks, but the committee is not asking Senators to certify that they have no financial interest in the projects — at least for now.

On March 30, EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) circulated letters to all Senators asking for any projects they would like to include in the Water Resources Development Act reauthorization and in legislation making technical corrections to the highway bill.

“We understand that there might be acute needs that are time sensitive and might be appropriate for a manager’s amendment when the bill is considered by the Senate,” they wrote in the WRDA letter. The deadline for project requests is close of business today.

Both letters state that “once the disclosure requirements of S.1, the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007, are enacted, the Committee intends to comply with them.” That legislation, which passed the Senate in January by a vote of 96-2, requires committees to make public both the names of the sponsors of earmarks and letters from those Senators certifying that they have no financial interest in the earmarks. But the House and Senate have never gone to conference on the bill.

According to Senate staff, the Environment panel at this point is requiring only that the name of the Senator be listed with the project. If there is ultimately some kind of requirement established that Senators have to certify they have no conflict of interest, the committee will have to “go back and get that later,” one staffer said.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed its versions of EPW’s bills in March and required conflict-of-interest certifications for both measures, though the committee said in its report that “it is not clear if the definition of ‘Congressional earmark’ [under the new House rules] applies to technical corrections to [highway bill] projects because these technical corrections do not provide new budget authority for such projects.” Nevertheless, the committee included the information in the bill, “in the interests of full disclosure and transparency.”

Boxer and Inhofe have said that they plan to keep both bills within the budget parameters of the versions that were considered in 2006 but never passed. By most estimates, that means the two bills together will authorize about $25 billion in construction for water and highway projects.

When her committee passed the WRDA bill at the end of the month, Boxer said she had reached an agreement with Republicans to include $140 million worth of Republican projects to offset a $140 million project that was added to the bill at the behest of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Staff members said at the time that these increases would be offset by cutting other projects in the bill. Democratic staff did not return calls requesting comment last week on how the broader call for projects Boxer and Inhofe circulated March 30 would affect that agreement.

Boxer and Inhofe said in their letter that highway bill requests could not increase the overall cost of the bill but did not include a similar caveat for WRDA requests.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that since the Senate overwhelmingly voted in favor of the new disclosure provisions, it is silly for the committee not to ask Members to comply with them now.

“Why don’t you just go ahead and do it?” Ellis asked. “Why do you have to wait until it is the law of the land before you have to disclose who asked for what earmarks?”

Ellis argues that it will be much more complicated to go back and ask Senators to file conflict-of-interest certifications after the bill already has been drafted, and it would be easier to request that information up front, even if it is not yet required.

The House is scheduled to take up the WRDA bill for floor consideration later this week.

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