Clearing the Air on Earmarks

Conservatives in Congress mass produced earmarks, but now they have the audacity to criticize them, writes Scott Lilly

The great conservative spin machine that stretches from the White House Press Room across the various right-wing think tanks to Fox News and dozens of conservative columnists and talk show hosts has amassed an impressive list of accomplishments over the years. But none of the efforts by this vast echo chamber is more impressive than the recent attempt to reshape the Bush White House and their allies in Congress as opponents of the practice of placing earmarks in federal spending legislation. 

Republicans in Congress, of course, did not invent the practice of earmarking. It is an innate power granted to the Congress by the Constitution; these little fiscal set asides can be found in spending bills going back to the beginning of the republic. But no one with any recollection of the performance of Congress over the past decade can have any doubt that earmarking exploded during the period that Republicans dominated Congress and that the practice became most egregious after George W. Bush moved into the Oval office. 

Annual spending bills such as the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education appropriation bill, which contained no earmarks prior to the 1995 Republican takeover of Congress, were loaded down with thousands of congressionally mandated set asides after a decade of Republican control. Bills that had historically contained some number of earmarks saw that number mushroom and the money allocated to earmarking double or even triple. 

In 2005, President Bush traveled to the Illinois district of the House Speaker Dennis Hastert to sign a highway bill containing not only the infamous “bridge to nowhere” but more earmarks than the combined total of earmarks in all of the highway bills since the Highway Trust Fund was created in 1956. Not only did the president sign the bill—he used the occasion to praise one of the most outrageous earmarks in American history, a four lane stretch of highway running past along land recently purchased by the author of the earmark, Speaker Hastert. 

Even this year, the President and many of his allies in Congress are trying to have it both ways on the issue of “merit-based” spending. The president’s budget request contains hundreds of proposed set asides for particular projects or activities selected by the executive branch. Even more troubling is that “merit-based” decision making on how money is spent seems to be the last thing this administration is interested in once funds have been appropriated. Recent analysis of contracting practices during this administration indicates that the amount of money spent on non-competitive contracting has more than tripled over the past six years. In 2006, the federal government spent more than $200 billion on non-competitive contracts or more than ten times the amount that was spent on Congressional earmarks during the same year. 

Congressional Republicans have spent hours and hours on the House floor this year decrying earmarks, but they have spent far more time back in their offices crafting letters to ask for them. Republican Congressman Patrick McHenry of North Carolina led an effort that held up appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security for nearly a week to protest earmarking. “I’m very proud of the actions that my conservative friends are taking on this House floor to hold the Democrats accountable for their slush fund, their secret earmarks and their pork-barrel projects,” he boasted. “And I urge the body to move in the conservative direction.” 

The following week it was revealed that McHenry had written the Appropriations Committee in April requesting funding for the “Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree Project.”  It was one of more than 10,000 requests sent to that committee by members of his party.

The “Spin Machine” has also succeeded in obscuring the fact that significant progress has been made by the new congressional majority in cleaning up the process by which earmarks are awarded. These include new rules adopted at the beginning of this Congress that: 

  • Prohibited members of Congress from using earmarks to reward or punish other members for their votes on matters before the House.
  • Require disclosure of the name and address of any intended recipient, the purpose of the earmark, and whether the member has a financial interest in the organization or entity receiving the earmark or would otherwise benefit personally from the inclusion of the earmark.
  • Require that all matters before a conference committee (including earmarks) must be subject to full and open debate and that a final version of a conference report must be voted on by a meeting open to all members of the conference committee, and that no item (including earmarks) may be added to the legislation after the conference committee has adjourned.

In addition, the new Congress took the following actions:

  • Completely excluded all earmarks from the nine fiscal year 2007 appropriation bills that were enacted in January 2007
  • Agreed to cut the amount of funding provided for earmarks in each of the fiscal year 2008 appropriation bills by 50 percent below the levels contained in the appropriation bills passed by the last Congress.
  • Established a policy requiring the publication by the Government Printing Office of all letters requesting earmarks included in an appropriation bill prior to floor consideration of the bill.      

An important additional reform attempted by the new Congress could not be implemented in the current fiscal year but is likely to be implemented next year. That reform would restore greater scrutiny of requested earmarks before their inclusion in appropriation bills.

The proposed reform would end the recent practice of Appropriation Subcommittees moving toward a policy of granting members a certain amount of money within each bill that they can use for what ever projects they deem to be appropriate. In many instances there is little vetting or review of these proposed earmarks by anyone other than the member who requested them and his immediate staff. 

The Appropriations Committee had to postpone their plan to return to a system in which proposed earmarks are subjected to a review by committee staff as well as by the agency personnel managing the earmarked funds. This reform was postponed because of time constraints created by a delay in the deadline for submitting earmark requests and the need to move the appropriation bills in a timely manner. There will, however, be additional review of the earmarks already included in the bills before they are finally agreed to in conference committee. 

The Appropriations Committee plans a much more complete review of all requested earmarks next year before any are included in the 2009 appropriation bills. 

These efforts to bring transparency, moderation, and discipline to earmarking may not be perfect, but they should be good news to anyone interested in more prudence and accountability in use of tax dollars. The current earmark controversy, however, is of concern for other reasons. First and foremost, it is diverting attention from the crushing impact that the Iraq war has had on our ability to make the investments needed to keep us safe, build our economy, and create a more just and peaceful society. 

The White House does not want a full and an open debate on these issues. To the extent the controversy over earmarks can help the president avoid the debate, he, his advisors, and their conservative echo chamber will do everything possible to stoke the flames—regardless of their extensive involvement in creating the earmark mess that the new Congress is now trying to clean up.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow