Earmark Control

Posted January 4, 2008 at 2:58pm

As President Bush noted in a press conference Dec. 20, the Democratic Congress has “made some progress” in controlling earmarks, but “they have not made enough progress.” He’s right.

Democrats will quickly retort, “Where was Bush when Republicans went earmark-crazy during their years in the majority?” And they will be right, too.

The fact is that, measured by numbers of earmarks and dollar value — and, even more importantly, transparency of the process — House Democrats have made considerable strides in the past year. Senate Democrats have made less. And Republicans now talk a good game on earmarks, but still feed at the trough.

Unlike some purists, we are not opposed to earmarks per se. Constituents send Members to Washington not only to set national policy, but to look out for their districts and states. Securing federal contracts and aiding local projects is part of a Member’s job. What’s important is that the process be open, honest and manageable.

But it’s not manageable. In both chambers, the sheer volume of earmarks — 11,000 enacted last year, down from 12,500 in 2006 — and the limited time available between public release of funding bills and floor action make it practically impossible for other Members, the media and watchdog groups to blow the whistle on dubious projects.

Transparency is certainly improved, but not perfect. Under new House and Senate rules enacted last year, Members must identify themselves with the projects they sponsor. This is a major reform, but it can be improved upon. House Members seeking an earmark must file a request letter with relevant committees, listing the beneficiary, the purpose and certifying that the Member has no financial interest in the project. House letters are publicly available on paper — although not online — if a project is approved. We’d urge that they be online whether approved or not.

The Senate process is more opaque. Request letters are not publicly available. All that is public is a Senator’s certification that he or she has no financial conflict of interest. And, in the case of Department of Defense projects, not even sponsorship disclosure is required.

The monster omnibus appropriation passed at the end of last year improved upon individual funding bills processed earlier by including tables listing all earmarks, their sponsors and cost. We hope that, this year, both chambers will fully enact 12 appropriations bills one by one and include similar tables in an electronically searchable format.

Despite a reduction in earmark volume from fiscal 2006 — by 43 percent according to Democrats, or 25 percent according to the independent Citizens Against Government Waste — Bush instructed his budget director to look for ways to cancel “wasteful” projects.

One option is to send a rescission request to Congress, which Democrats surely will ignore. Another is to issue an executive order to departments not to spend funds listed in House-Senate conference reports, but not in the body of legislation. This, it’s expected, would result in “nuclear war” between the White House and Congress.

We advise against “nuclear war,” given the already-fractious state of relations between the White House and Congress. We’d urge the president to use his bully pulpit to denounce dicey projects. And we’d urge appropriators and Members to approve fewer of them and be completely transparent about the process.