Despite House Republican leaders’ announcement that GOP Members wouldn’t seek earmarks this year, Republicans on different House authorizing committees are taking divergent positions on how broadly to implement the ban.
On the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, GOP Members are withdrawing all of their project requests for the next highway bill and the Water Resources Development Act.
But in a March 17 memo, House Armed Services ranking member Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) instructed GOP members of the committee that military construction requests are not covered by the ban. McKeon’s memo indicated that attempts by Members to redirect funding to specific projects will be rejected as earmarks.
However, “military construction projects are not considered earmarks and are permitted if the project is included in the military service’s future years defense plan, is accompanied by a valid [construction project planning document], and is executable in fiscal year 2011,” the memo said.
But these requests were treated as earmarks last year under House Rule XXI — the rule that defines earmarks.
“Congressman McKeon is taking a very narrow view of what is and what is not an earmark,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Ellis said most military construction earmarks are presidential requests and that Members will put their names on those requests to either increase Congressional support for the project, increase the money it receives or simply get credit for the project back home.
“There are lots of Members [who take credit for projects] that don’t mention that the president put the money” into the budget, Ellis said.
The Armed Services memo also indicates that “a request to fully support the President’s budget request for any program is not an earmark” and that “changes to the President’s Budget Request that in the absence of a specific Member request would have been made by the committee are not earmarks.”
“We issued our guidance in order to allow Republican Members to meet the Armed Services Committee deadline, but we will ultimately follow the decision by the House Armed Services Committee chairman as to whether MILCON requests are considered earmarks,” said Josh Holly, a spokesman for McKeon. “If that ends up being the case, our guidance will be to withdraw requests.”
Conversely, down the hall in the Rayburn House Office Building, Republican staff on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee have already begun processing letters from Members to withdraw more than 1,000 earmark requests from the highway bill and Water Resources Development Act reauthorizations.
Ranking member John Mica (R-Fla.) has maintained a policy that all of the Republican project requests in the committee’s jurisdiction are public, and Mica’s staff has three file drawers full of hundreds of request letters, totaling billions of dollars worth of bridge replacements, levee upgrades, streetscape enhancements, water infrastructure investments and other projects submitted by the vast majority of the Republican caucus.
Though the highway bill seems unlikely to pass this year, Republicans have submitted about 1,500 earmark requests, and Democrats have submitted about 5,000, committee sources said. Democrats on the committee do not make their party’s earmark requests public prior to passage of the legislation, but Members are required to post their earmark requests on their own Web sites.
The new Republican earmark policy mandates that GOP Members withdraw these requests. But neither House Democrats nor the Senate have a similar policy.
House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) announced that his committee would not accept earmarks this year that benefit private ventures, but Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) has issued no such edict for legislation in his committee’s jurisdiction.
That means that if a highway bill or water resources bill does move through Congress this year, House Republicans may be the only Members who can’t get a road widened or a drainage ditch dug in their district.
Mica told Roll Call that he believes the projects are worthwhile and that he supports transparency, not abstinence, as a way to ensure the earmarks are proper. He said his concern is that “there needs to be a single process,” not separate policies for each party or each committee or each chamber.
Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), who submitted four dozen project requests for the highway bill, said Friday, “The Conference, for the reason that they think the current system is broken, they’ve decided to take a little rest” from earmarks. But LaTourette said it seems unlikely the highway bill or the WRDA bill is going to pass this year anyway, and “next year we are going to put in place something that makes the people who think that earmarks in general are bad feel better … and we will be back to earmarks with transparency.”
“I think all my projects will be secure,” he concluded.
Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said: “I think both sides need to work together for a clear definition of an investment — I don’t even want to use the word earmark.’ … I think if we look at this as an investment for the people, in this case for the military that should be approved.”
Jones said, “I think next year no matter which party is the majority, we need to have a clarification because on Armed Services I don’t think anybody makes a request unless they think it is the right reason and is good for the military.”
But Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), who also serves on the committee, said it may be hard for Republicans to go back to requesting earmarks after taking a vow of abstinence this year.
“It’s going to be tough [to resume earmarking] because then we are going to be accused of being big hypocrites. They’ll say we took a sanctimonious position just to get us through the election and then we are going back to earmarks.”
Bartlett said military earmarks are critically important because it takes the Pentagon years to develop a purchase request in the budget, meaning the technology requested in the president’s budget is always out of date by the time Congress approves the purchase.
“If you always want the Chinese and Russians to be a year or two ahead of us in technologies, then don’t do any earmarks in defense,” Bartlett said.
He also noted — as the Armed Services memo indicates — that the earmark ban could have the effect of simply converting earmark requests by individual Members into committee requests. “If they are really important — and in defense they are really important — they are going to show up as committee adds. And there is no prohibition against committee adds. Just don’t put a guy’s name on it,” Bartlett said.
He said this procedure “is even less transparent, so the very problem we wanted to solve we’ve now made worse.”
Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark), ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, said the Republican earmark ban is intended to restore public confidence, but it is not the end of the conversation. “We can’t have it such that the president is the earmarker of everything” and Congress has no control over deciding which projects move forward, Boozman said. “It’s a difficult problem, but it is one that needs to be solved.” The GOP ban is in place for now, “but the question now is how is that going to be implemented,” he said.
Clarification: March 22, 2010
The article pointed out that House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Democrats do not make public pending earmark requests submitted by Democratic Members, but it failed to note that Members are required to post their earmark requests on their own Web sites.