When Democrats announced a moratorium on earmarks and a promise to pass meaningful reform in the aftermath of their election victory I was cautiously optimistic and praised that announcement. The question then, as I wrote here on H.E., was whether they would follow through on their promises to voters and enact real reforms for the fiscal 2008 appropriations process. Well the results are in and the Democratic majority has failed the test badly. Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee David Obey announced yesterday that the House will keep all of its earmarks secret through the initial passage of the appropriations bills, adding them in only at the last minute in conference committees, where they will not be subject to public scrutiny, debate, or floor amendment.
Conference committees are supposed to be for reconciling differences between House and Senate versions of legislation. Earmarks conjured out of nowhere in conference have long been identified as one of the most abusive earmarking practices. By the time a bill emerges from conference the more contentious points have usually been settled, often after a long drawn out process, and the bills are likely to be enacted. It is often a scramble against time to meet the end of the fiscal year or the expiration of a continuing resolution. Adding earmarks at that stage virtually guarantees that indefensible projects will be funded because they will escape any meaningful public review or congressional debate.
Adding earmarks in conference reports is also a violation of the standing rules of both the House and Senate. The relevant House rule (rule XXII, paragraph 9) says: “Moreover, a conference report may not include matter not committed to the conference committee by either House.” The relevant Senate rule (rule XXVIII, paragraph 2) says: “Conferees shall not insert in their report matter not committed to them by either House, nor shall they strike from the bill matter agreed to by both Houses.”
When these rules were broken by Republican majorities, Democrats correctly called foul. In fact, last year the Democrats denounced the Republican earmark reform bill for its failure to definitively end the practice. The Democrat alternative last year, an amendment sponsored by Rahm Emanuel (D.-Ill.), caucus chair and architect of the new majority, would have prohibited “the inclusion of earmarks and other provisions in conference reports without the language having first been in either the House or Senate legislation’s original language.”
Not only are Democrats now refusing to specifically prohibit the practice, but Chairman Obey is using the conference committee method to block transparency of all House earmarks. Far from setting a new standard of openness and ethics, the Democrats, are now setting a new low for public accountability with respect to earmarking, disregarding their campaign promises as well as the rules of the Congress.
Organizations like Americans for Prosperity are most effective when we can point to outrageous earmarks to get the public engaged and energized, as our success in bringing together thousands of activists for limited government on the Ending Earmarks Express tour last year demonstrated. By keeping the entire earmark process a secret until the last minute, the new House process will make it impossible for activists, groups and ordinary citizens to weigh in against even the most egregious wastes of their tax dollars until it’s too late.
Obey’s new process, played out in secret until conference reports are made available, will privilege insider special interests and advocates of big government at the expense of ordinary citizens. For the sake of fiscal responsibility, Obey must be pressured by fiscally responsible members of his caucus, including Rep. Emanuel, if his proposal last year was sincere, to reconsider and make the earmarking process open and accountable. If Obey insists on moving all of the House earmarks through the backdoor of conference committees, then fiscally conservative voters may make the Democrats time in the majority short-lived.