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Earmarks: Congress hides money requests behind narrowed definition

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Parents teach their children not to make promises they cannot — or will not — keep. In the matter of earmarks, more members of Congress should have listened to their parents.

Earmarks represent power. Members of Congress can direct how money drawn from the U.S. Treasury can be spent. For example, if a representative or senator wants to keep open a factory in his or her district that makes defense-related equipment, he or she can insert an earmark into the federal budget designating money for that use. Then he or she can claim credit for bringing that money into the district. There had been no requirement that an earmark be identified with a member of Congress. It could be a secret. So earmarks represented both power and secrecy, a democratically unhealthy combination.

Politicians like power and secrecy, especially when money is involved. So they have resisted mightily transparency in earmarks — revealing who sponsored what amount of money for what project benefiting whom. Transparency reduces power.

The use of earmarks is growing. In 2005, about 15,000 earmarks representing $47 billion went into the federal budget. CNN reported today that about 32,000 earmarks are pending in the House.

After the midterm elections, the Democratically controlled Congress promised it would address earmark reform. It did … sort of.

In January, the House passed rules to require that both the spending projects and their sponsors be disclosed on the Internet at least 48 hours before they are considered on the floor. That means members of Congress would be required to justify the public need for the expenditures and certify that the members would not benefit financially from them, says a Cato Institute article. The Senate passed a similar measure.

Problem solved. Well, sort of.

Remember back in March when, according to The New York times, “the House Appropriations Committee approved a $124 billion emergency war-spending package that included money for the space center, the spinach growers and the peanut farmers [and] declared the bill to be free of any earmarks”?

That’s because an earmark wasn’t an earmark anymore. Congress’ new “rules” had narrowed the definition, allowing it to sidestep its faint-hearted grasp at transparency. Sayeth The Times:

Democrats pointed to the new rule, which defined ”Congressional earmark” as any expenditure requested by a lawmaker, intended for a specific state, district or ”entity,” and outside the usual administrative process. None of the three allocations qualify as an earmark, Democrats said. Two could apply to more than one district. And the space center money, they said, will go to NASA.

According to The Times: “Steve Ellis, a vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said excluding such items ‘makes a mockery” of the new rule. ‘Spinach by any other name still tastes like an earmark.'”

CNN’s Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston reported today on their survey of House members for information about earmarks. They found:

• Only 31 of 435 members of the House provided information on earmark requests.
• 68 declined to provide requests; 329 didn’t return calls or provide requests.

Their story contains a link through which voters can find out if their representatives provided lists of earmark requests.

Here’s one attitude about the survey:

“As long as we are not required to release them, we’re not going to,” said Dan Turner, an aide to Rep. Jim McCrery, R-Louisiana. [emphasis added]

So much for transparency. So much for being straight with voters.

On the other hand, Democratic leader Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois, released a list of his earmark requests on Monday. Thank you, sir. But … given how the January “rules” revision altered the definition of earmark, how does one how complete Rep. Emanuel’s list is?

Several groups have sought to have legislators sign an “Earmark Transparency Pledge.” This joint effort by the Sunlight Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, OMB Watch and Taxpayers for Common Sense needs more public support. (Bill Allison at Sunlight writes compellingly and knowledgeably about earmarks for those interested.)

I’ve written to my congressman and sent him a copy of the pledge. I’ll let you know how he replies.

Meanwhile, our elected representatives continue to defy a public cry for more accountability for their actions. Voters signaled a desire for significant ethical reform in November.

The Democrats pitched their 2006 mid-term elections bid for control of both chambers of Congress on rules reform and transparency.

Either they are too stupid to recognize the voters’ desire — or they made promises they had no intention of keeping.

xpost: Scholars & Rogues and 5th Estate

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

June 19, 2007 at 5:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Unfortunately, the fact that transparency is the right thing to support doesn’t seem to be much of an incentive for lawmakers.

    cwmackowski

    June 20, 2007 at 3:20 am


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