Secret Slush Funds and Earmarks

That the authors of our nation’s governing document gave the House of Representatives exclusive authority to bring forth legislation related to revenue was no accident. The House, after all, was designed to be the more responsive, more accountable of the two chambers — especially when it came to the business of raising and spending the hard-earned money of the American taxpayer.

But it’s precisely this element of accountability that’s come under withering attack from Democratic corners this year. It started with the passage of the majority’s watered-down lobbying reform bill, and was most recently on display in their handling of what was supposed to be an "emergency" Iraq spending bill for our troops. More than 100 days after the process had begun, Democrats were congratulating themselves for naming 11 post offices but still hadn’t found a way to send our men and women in uniform the resources they needed to be secure.

The trend continues unabated this week. Citing the volume of workload associated with complying with the spirit of the rules as they are laid out, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee simplified the process dramatically by declaring himself a one-man selection committee in charge of determining how much of your money will be spent through earmarks this year, and to whom it will be sent.

These funding decisions are among the most important and controversial items we deal with each year, and for good reason. After all, the question of how to allocate the hard-earned money that millions of American families pay in taxes deserves the same sober and serious deliberation by members of Congress that families give to creating their own budgets around the dinner table.

That’s why it’s so important that the rules of the budgeting and appropriations process be well-defined and understood — and the process itself easy to monitor from the outside, and difficult to obfuscate or manipulate on the inside.

Unfortunately, that basic level of transparency will not be part of the annual appropriations process in Congress this year. Instead, one man will decide which of the thousands of spending requests will receive support, and which will not. And once that’s determined, that one man will draft a series of conference reports with no opportunity for amendment by elected members of the House.

The potential for abuse in proceeding along a course this invulnerable to scrutiny is obvious. That’s why House Republicans passed changes last Congress that sought to address those issues by requiring that both the names of earmarks and the lawmaker requesting them be identified in bills as they proceed through committee.

In passing those reforms, we created a new type of system in which members and the media could take their time to sort through appropriations bills, find what they might consider to be curious spending projects, and challenge the author of those earmarks on the floor of the House. And just to drive the point home, we added an additional layer of long-term security by making sure our new directives couldn’t be suspended by a vote on the Rules Committee.

But now Democrats control that particular committee, and all the rest of them as well – giving us the chance to observe how the process will move along this year thanks to their "reforms." Just to give you a sense, under their plan spending projects couldn’t be challenged on the floor as long as a list of earmarks — even an inaccurate or incomplete one — is included in the bill.

Even more disturbing, a bill slathered with pork can be certified as "earmark-free" if the corresponding money is dropped into a slush fund without identifying where it’s going. Of course, the payouts will be the same as soon as the names, places and amounts are added in conference. But gone will be any opportunity to debate the merits of that funding in an open, honest, and transparent manner.

Democrats promised to preside over the "most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history." These next couple weeks on the House floor will provide them further opportunities to prove to the American people they were serious about fulfilling the promises they made last November. But on the crucial issue of earmarks, it appears they’ve marched 10 steps back at a time when our country expects and deserves precisely the opposite approach.


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