Competing Earmark Reform Plans Emerge in Senate

In his State of the Union address this week, President Bush pledged support for earmark reform in the budget process, urging Congress to give him the power of a line-item veto to pare down egregiously irresponsible budgets. Bush said this to fervent applause by perhaps one the last fiscal conservatives in the Senate, John McCain.

Two proposals for earmark reform have been put forward: one by Senators Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the other by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). While the aim of both proposals is to reform earmarking in Congress, the proposals differ vastly in their effect on the pork system.

The proposal submitted by Lott and Feinstein does absolutely nothing to reform, alter, or curb the gross spending habits of Congress. The Lott-Feinstein proposal merely informs the public that its tax money is going to kids that play golf on Pebble Beach. Lott and Feinstein admitted that the proposal does not end pork-barrel spending, but attempts “to bring a far greater degree of transparency to the process.” The proposal would still permit officials to insert earmarks into conference reports, but Congress would have to vote on them. The core concepts of the Lott-Feinstein proposal include:

  • Making conference reports available to the full Senate at least 24 hours prior to consideration by the full Senate. Additionally, reports must be made available on the Internet.
  • Conference reports must include lists of the sponsors of all earmarks and their justifications for the earmark.
  • All member requests for earmarks in appropriations bills must be listed in the Congressional Record.

That being said, all earmarks added to conference reports would be allowed a point of order against the earmark, which can be waived with 60 votes. If the point of order were sustained, the earmark would be struck from the bill and sent back to the House for a vote with the questioned items deleted. While this may sound like a workable solution, the existence of quid pro-quo in the Senate would make it nearly impossible to strike earmarks from conference reports. Transparency of the process is nice, but it does not address the problem of frivolous spending despite record deficits.

The McCain-Coburn proposal, by contrast, seeks to curb frivolous earmarks and runaway spending sprees. McCain was a fierce opponent of 2005’s enormous highway bill and other pork-laden bills. Despite Coburn’s vote for the highway bill, he is widely known as an opponent of earmarks. In a joint letter that was hand-delivered to each senator yesterday, McCain and Coburn vowed to challenge every earmark inserted in a conference report instead of merely giving senators the “option” to contest pork projects.

McCain and Coburn, who have been outcasts in Congress for their position on earmarking, admitted that while reform was not popular in Congress, the public has a right to expect “accountability in the expenditure of taxpayer dollars.” Earmark reform is the bus many expect McCain to ride all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue, and rightly so. Love them or hate them, McCain and Coburn are the last Reagan Republicans standing in the Senate.

While the Lott-Feinstein proposal attempts pansy-waist reform, the McCain-Coburn proposal goes right to the root of the problem. North Carolinians shouldn’t be paying for highways in California, nor should the nation’s taxpayers fund golf lessons for kids. We have gone from 4,126 earmarks in 1994 to nearly triple the amount in 2005. This reckless spending must be ended, and the government and liberal media should actually report the true causes of our sky-high deficit: earmarks.