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Phony Earmark Reform

If politicians can’t come up with an effective solution to a problem, it sometimes works to put forth a largely irrelevant proposal and then stage a big fight over it as though it really mattered. That is precisely what House Republicans did last week on the subject of earmarks. Having presided over a several-fold increase in the practice of earmarking over the course of the past decade, they wanted a provision in their otherwise tepid reform package that would appear to create some control over the explosion in pork barrel spending.

The provision does not block earmarks. It forces members to take responsibility for them. Huh? Have you ever met a politician who wouldn’t accept responsibility for sending other people’s tax money to the folks back home? Currently they have to go through all the bother of putting out a press release. The new rule not only permits the Appropriations Committee to continue to hand out earmarks, it requires the Committee to give the member credit up front, right in the report that accompanies the bill.

This is likely to change the way Congress operates. Members who anticipate that particular earmarks for their state or region are going to be included in an appropriation bill will now send letters on behalf of all such earmarks to make sure their name gets on the list.

What is noteworthy, however, is that a great many things that are now considered earmarks by the vast majority of observers of the practice are not included in the disclosure requirement. These include “plus ups” for specific budget accounts where the intended recipient is known to the agency but not mentioned by name in the Committee or Conference Report. This is exactly the kind of earmark that Duke Cunningham won on behalf of Automated Data Conversion Systems and the MZM Corporation in return for the bribes the executives of those two companies paid him.

Also left out of the disclosure requirements are earmarks to “a unit of State or local government, an Indian tribe, or a foreign government.” Most of Jack Abramoff’s lobbying business did not involve earmarks, but he did win at least a few to — you guessed it, Indian tribes. The loophole this language creates in the disclosure requirement is so large as to exclude not just many, but in fact, a large majority of all remaining earmarks. State and local governments and their affiliated colleges and universities are by far the largest recipient of earmarks.

Among the questions that the “reform package” raises is why members who win earmarks for public colleges and universities should not be recognized for their efforts in the same manner as those who win them for private schools. One could argue that it takes just as much effort, if not more, to get an earmark for New Jersey’s Middlesex Community College as it does for Princeton. So why not recognize both equally?

Another question is the selection of legislation for which disclosure is required. Perhaps the largest recent earmark, a $1.5 billion grant to a research consortium headquartered in Tom DeLay’s hometown of Sugar Land, Texas, and made up of the world’s biggest oil companies, was in an authorization bill not an appropriation and would have not been disclosed as a consequence of the new “reform.” Likewise with all 6,300 earmarks in the most heavily earmarked bill in history, last year’s highway bill. That bill was also not an appropriation, and as a result none of the sponsors of none of the $24 billion in earmarks would have been disclosed, including the famous “Bridge to Nowhere.”

The “reform” language does not even include all appropriation bills. It stipulates general purpose appropriations, which excludes supplementals and continuing resolutions. As a result, no reporting would be required for any of the earmarks in the supplemental bill currently being debated in the Senate, including the “Railroad to Nowhere.”

Another question that the House should address before passing this “reform” is why have appropriators failed to name the sponsors of these provisions in the past? While it is widely presumed that the reason has been to obscure the truth from the press and the public, there are at least two other reasons that probably have been more important in the thinking of appropriators.

The first is that appropriators were probably less concerned about the press and the public knowing who got which earmarks as they were about providing that information to other members of Congress. Members of Congress are not all treated the same in the earmarking process. But under the current system no one other than the subcommittee chairman who inserted the earmarks knows exactly how much anyone else got. That saves a great deal of wear and tear on the subcommittee chairmen and reduces the pressure for even more earmarks. If every member of the House has a complete listing of what every other member got, he can immediately begin to compare his standing in the institution, his support of the committee on key votes, and any other factor that might arguably serve as a basis for determining the distribution of earmarks with members of the House who got more than he or she did in earmarks.

A second reason is that at one point in time the philosophy of the Appropriations Committee was that no item was included in an appropriation bill at the request of an individual member. It was included or excluded because it had been reviewed by the subcommittee, and in turn, the full committee and a collective judgment had been reached based on the case that had been presented. At least in theory, the inclusion of any provision in an appropriation was based on merit, not as a favor to the requestor. When you think about it, that is not a bad theory.

Perhaps next year when it is clear that earmarking is still out of control, some enterprising leadership staffer can come up with a new “reform” as a panacea to the House’s lack of discipline in conducting the public business. They can repeal the requirement to list member’s names next to earmarks so as to reduce the pressure for earmarks and make the Appropriations Committee more responsible for the content of its bills.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. He spent 31 years working for the United States Congress, including 10 years as the Staff Director and Minority Staff Director to the House Appropriations Committee.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow