Earmark Changes Unveiled

Posted January 6, 2009 at 6:50pm

Members of Congress will no longer be able to hide earmark requests behind a cloak of secrecy after the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees announced new sunshine rules Tuesday.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and his Senate counterpart, Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), said that starting with the fiscal 2010 appropriations bills, they would require Members to post their requests on their Web sites at the time they make them, and explain the purpose of the earmark and why it is a valuable use of taxpayer funds.

The move is already causing private grumbling among some rank-and-file Members.

The committees have long kept earmark requests secret, making it impossible to compare funded requests and those ultimately spurned by the committee. Journalists, other Members advocating earmark reforms, and outside groups have long sought access to those requests.

The committee chairmen also said earmark disclosure tables will be available during subcommittee markups rather than during full committee markups.

Reformers had questioned the past practice of releasing earmarks only during the final markup, which made it difficult for the public to know what was being funded in time for the committee to make changes.

The chairmen also agreed to cut the overall level of earmarks to 50 percent of the 2006 level for non-project-based accounts. According to the chairmen, the fiscal 2008 spending bills were already cut 43 percent from the 2006 level, so this means a modest additional reduction.

Earmarks would be held below 1 percent of discretionary spending in future years, they said. That amounts to about $10 billion a year.

“Today we build on the unprecedented reforms made to earmarks since Democrats took control of the Congress in 2007,” Obey and Inouye said in a statement. “These reforms mean that earmarks will be funded at a level half as high as they were in 2006, face greater public scrutiny, and members of Congress will have more time and access to more information before they vote on bills and as they prepare amendments.”

Steve Ellis, vice president of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that while he was encouraged by the announcement, he needs to see the details of the new policy to be able to judge its reach. To bring real transparency to the process, the disclosures should include the dollar amounts of the requests and their intended recipients, he said.

“I don’t want to be a nattering nabob of negativity,” Ellis said. “It’s something we’ve wanted. Now it’s just a matter of fine-tuning it and making it better.”

Ellis’ group over the summer found that 76 lawmakers disclosed their earmark requests online — including President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden. Another 46 didn’t request any earmarks, meaning that a total of 112 Members are entirely transparent about their requests.

“I’ve been posting my requests for the entire time I’ve been in Congress,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, who praised the move. “I’m from the Sunshine State.”

Some other Members who don’t list the information online, such as Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), said they provide their requests to local media. Napolitano said she had no problem with the new requirement. “It’s incumbent that we be as transparent as we can,” she said. “That should never be a problem, because the requests should be legitimate.”

Whether the new disclosures will result in a windfall of new requests or a tapering off remains a matter of contention. Appropriators had in the past resisted posting requests, arguing that they would be inundated with requests from lawmakers unwilling to say no to local groups.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said on balance more Members will submit more projects now, resulting in a pileup at the committee, but he still supports the change. “What the hell, it’s fine with me,” he said. “It’s just another way for me to demonstrate the worthy projects I’m trying to get funded in the Pittsburgh area.”

But Ellis predicted a dampening effect on requests, since lawmakers getting only a sliver of their projects funded could be deemed ineffective.

“I think they’ll be a little more conscious of what they’re likely to get funded rather than requesting funding for everything that crosses their desk,” he said.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) commended the new rules but said Democratic leaders should go further and ban any “monuments to me” as well as earmarks airdropped into conference reports — as Republicans have already unilaterally adopted.

Republicans have launched their own committee to come up with earmark reforms, but the Democratic move appears to be a pre-emptive strike.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) dismissed Republican criticism.

“The Republicans talk a good game but play a terrible one,” he said. “They’re the ones who quadrupled earmarks.”

But Hoyer acknowledged that not everyone will be happy with the new disclosures.“I think that will cause some consternation — Members get inundated with requests,” Hoyer said. But he said that more disclosure is a good thing.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a senior appropriator, said some Members might submit laundry lists of projects but others might be more responsible and not make trivial requests. “It might require Members to buck up and tell people no,” he said.

Simpson, meanwhile, said he is thinking of going a step further in changing how he requests earmarks and is considering a personal ban on earmarks to private entities.

“We’ve pretty much decided we aren’t going to do that, because of the connections that someone could draw between campaign contributions and earmarks,” he said.

Simpson said he wasn’t sure an outright ban on private earmarks was the right way to go, noting that the Predator Drone, an unmanned aircraft system, was an example of a private earmark that helped the country.

“But politically the connections that people can draw, rightly or wrongly, is probably not good for Congress,” he said.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the House’s chief earmark antagonist, said the new rule could lead to a horde of requests but said the announcement is still encouraging. “It’s nice to send these signals, but they’ve got to be followed up with action,” he said.

Flake said he is preparing a list of additional reforms he would like to see to the process, including a ban on giving earmarks to firms run by campaign contributors — a frequent practice for some Members.

Alluding to the charges against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), Flake asked, “What’s the difference between selling a Senate seat and delivering a bunch of contracts for campaign cash?”