Earmark Reform: Conservatives Await Next Steps

Though the days of summer are clearly behind us, the campaign season is blazing with a white-hot intensity. The Republicans are anxious about getting politically burned, as the forecasts for a Democratic heat wave that retakes the House of Representatives seem plausible. In the wake of the Duke Cunningham and Jack Abramoff scandals, Americans heard many voices, both on and off Capitol Hill, calling for measures to curb abuses of the federal budget. With only a few weeks of lame-duck session left in the 109th Congress, how have the reformers fared? Equally important, what are the implications for the upcoming elections?

The initial attempt to change course began in May when the Senate included in its sweeping lobbying reform bill a provision to address the wasteful practice of adding special-interest earmarks to tax and spending bills. This would have changed Senate rules to authorize a parliamentary point of order (i.e., an objection to proceed) against any earmark found in House-Senate compromise bills—known as conference reports—that did not also appear in the original legislation. Though it represented a good preliminary move, this rule change ultimately went nowhere as the House and Senate did not agree on a lobbying reform bill before they recessed.

In a bid to perhaps reverse their political fortunes for the upcoming mid-term elections, the House GOP leadership recently pushed through a rule change of their own, one that could outflank Democrats on the issue of fiscal responsibility. The new rule requires a list of earmarks and their sponsors in appropriations bills as well as conference reports, so as to curtail the frequency of anonymous spending requests that aid a special interest in a district. If they are not revealed, any member of Congress could lodge a procedural objection to prevent their inclusion.  This change will lead to greater transparency in the appropriations process.

However, the ultimate impact may be less impressive. Only one appropriations measure, the yet-to-be-finalized Labor-HHS-Education bill, will be subject to the House rule requiring a listing of its pork-laden contents. In addition, the rule change does not apply equally to tax and authorizing bills. Only tax breaks that benefit a single entity will be considered—earmarks—that need to be identified, leaving out many provisions that favor a select few. Lower taxes for anyone may be more desirable than pork-barrel spending, but such narrow provisions slow the momentum for across-the-board tax relief that would do our economy the most good. And finally, the large number of supposedly non-controversial bills that are considered—under suspension of the rules—would not have to furnish lists of earmarks and sponsors at all.

Though the rule change is not perfect, it does amount to a positive step in the direction of true reform. However, further action is needed to truly protect taxpayers’ wallets from predatory earmarks. Perhaps the most proactive approach for Congress would be to adopt a proposal by Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) that would require debate and a vote on every single earmarked project.

A thorough deliberation of individual earmarks would expose the major abuses of pork-barrel politics. Members often vote in favor of collective appropriations packages that contain only a few earmarks they would support. With Senator Coburn’s plan in place, Members could reject superfluous spending measures, funding only the projects deemed most necessary. If Congress spends less money, the number of opportunities for lobbyists to take part in influence peddling would diminish.

When Congress returns to session after the November elections, leadership in both Houses should bring up strong, substantive earmark reform packages. For those Members of Congress who survive the tough election, voting for equally tough legislation could prove to taxpayers that there’s more to reform than just rhetoric. They must embark on a serious campaign that aims to shake up not just the system but also the mentality of the lawmakers who have abused it so readily in recent years.

Conservatives were cheered when the House followed through (however imperfectly) on the speaker’s and majority leader’s promise to enact limited safeguards against earmarking. If Republicans commit now to enacting additional, serious changes to the earmarking process, they just might convince American taxpayers that such a campaign is more than mere pageantry. As a result, GOP leaders would be helping to extinguish the flames of voter discontent with the party’s establishment.