Earmark Reform Picks Up Momentum

In his State of the Union address last 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. He also pledged support for lobbyist reform. Bush said this to fervent applause by perhaps one of the last fiscal conservatives and true reformers in the Senate, John McCain.

Lobbying and budget earmarks are inexplicably intertwined. Without earmark reform, lobbying reform means nothing. If anyone believes that budget earmarks are not paid for by lobbyists, I have some waterfront property in Idaho to sell them. In fact, I would venture to say that all discretionary spending bills are authored by K Street. The actual debate in Congress is just a formality.

Recently, two proposals for earmark reform were 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.

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.

While the earmark reform proposed by McCain and Coburn is a great step in the right direction, it will have no effect without lobbyist reform. The recent Jack Abrahmoff scandal has affected both parties, and yet, not surprisingly, it is being twisted for political gain. While Republicans have returned the money, Democrats deny their implication in the scandal, saying that while they received money from Abrahmoff clients, they didn’t receive the money from Abrahmoff himself. Neither did most of those involved in the scandal. While McCain has tried to make reform a bipartisan effort that has credibility, Democrats just want to tell the jury that they didn’t actually commit the crime; they just willingly and illegally sold the gun to the suspect, which was then used against them in a grand conspiracy orchestrated by George Bush. Note to Democrats: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a novel and is purely fictional. Snap out of it.

Rising star Barack Obama, senator from Illinois, initially pledged support for McCain’s bipartisan effort to reform the lobbyist system. After Reid heard of his bipartisanship, Obama changed course, joined Harry’s chain gang and exploited the scandal for partisan political gain, portraying it as a Republicans-only scandal. Of course, when McCain told Obama off in a highly publicized letter peppered with subtle sarcasm, media outrage ensued over the fact that someone disrespected the liberals’ rising star. America was apparently not supposed to know that the emperor has no clothes.

It is time the Democrats got real. The world is not some evil mirage designed to make them scapegoats for things they didn’t do. Earmark and lobbyist reform is a matter of upholding a level of integrity that the American people have a right to expect from Congress. Scandal and reform is not a political football, nor is it a game of quid pro quo. Quite simply, it is time for the Democrats to put up or shut up.