House Republicans won a victory this past week by defeating an attempt by Democrats to hide the provision and distribution of earmarks from members of Congress and from the public at large. This was a victory for transparency and oversight. It was also a victory against the expansion of government and fiscal irresponsibility practiced by legislators whose parochial interests regularly took precedence over national interests, and who were recently nicknamed "Earmarxists," an apt epithet if ever there was one.
Initially, contrary to their promises upon taking control in January, Democrats refused to list earmarks in the Homeland Security appropriations bill. Led by Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, Democrats claimed that they simply didn’t have the time to go through and list the nearly 34,000 earmark requests that they received, causing them to decide to hide the earmarks in what Republicans called ‘slush fund” accounts. This would have prevented the full House from debating and challenging those earmarks. It would have also allowed Democrats to claim that bills chock-full of earmarks were somehow “earmark-free,” a twist on language that would have perhaps even stunned George Orwell.
As House Republican Leader John Boehner points out, the process would have entailed Chairman Obey arrogating massive amounts of power in determining earmark requests:
Obey planned to keep the earmark requests secret to allow himself more time to review them all personally — a bizarre process for the most "open" and "honest" Congress. Obey said he would eventually print each earmark request in the Congressional Record — but only after the House voted on its appropriations bills. Obey said lawmakers could write to him individually about specific projects and express their concerns… but that’s not accountability; that’s a complaints department.
My colleagues and I warned Democratic leaders that if they insisted on bringing their appropriations bills to the floor under Obey’s plan, Republicans would fight back. When the first of their spending bills came up earlier this week on Tuesday they ignored the warning. That’s when Republicans went on offense.
Embarrassed by the House Republicans’ relentless scrutiny and the yawning gap between the rhetoric of “the most ethical Congress in history” and the reality of a Congress that was hiding its appropriations functions from individual Representatives and the country at large, Democrats capitulated.
Of course, while one might wish that the capitulation had something to do with a sudden angelic disposition on the part of the majority in the House of Representatives, the Democrats had more practical reasons for backing down. The rise of the Internet and the proliferation of political blogs entails a greater demand for accountability and transparency in government. One of the more courageous fighters for accountability in the earmarks process is Representative Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona. In this most recent go-around, he went toe-to-toe with David Obey and won . . . thanks in large part to the new openness brought about by his allies in the new media and the Blogosphere:
Toward 2 a.m., Chairman Obey challenged Mr. Flake: "The gentleman has offered a lot of motions in the past two years to strike earmarks. Could I ask him how many of them have been successful?"
"Not one," Flake responded. "I came to the floor 39 times and was beaten like a rented mule every time."
But the level of public interest and scrutiny over earmarks has increased since those votes, he said, in an interview. Obey "misjudged the way this is viewed outside the Beltway."
On Monday, Obey announced a revision of committee policy on earmarks: Instead of including member projects, identified by name in spending bills, earmarks would be fully disclosed before the August recess — after all House votes on spending bills, but before the final appropriations are worked out in a conference with the Senate. Lawmakers objecting to any earmark could send a letter to the committee challenging the project.
The move set off protests from editorial boards to accountability websites in the blogosphere. Within hours of the Obey announcement, more than 770 people volunteered to help Congress vet earmarks this cycle on the porkbusters.org website.
Porkbusters has been a leader in monitoring earmarks and the abuses of the earmarks process. In addition, individual blogs have taken to examining the process and holding Representatives and Senators accountable for the allocation of earmarks and for excesses that have been engaged in. President Bush has threatened to veto excessive government spending and his administration has gotten into the Internet game by setting up a website with which the public can monitor the earmark process. The courage of the House Republicans has likely emboldened their colleagues in the Senate, which means that Senate Republicans are now more likely to stand up for transparency and openness regarding the earmark process if they are challenged on that issue by Senate Democrats. Having seen their House colleagues profit from being on the right and popular side of the issue, Senate Republicans will be emboldened to carry the fight for transparency further still.
With the successful effort to bring responsibility and transparency to the earmark process, House Republicans have set the stage for the implementation of a more responsible fiscal policy. Because the earmark process has gotten embarrassingly out of control, this victory over wasteful government spending may seem inevitable in retrospect, but the victory is in fact nothing short of amazing given the powerful entrenched interests determined to fight for the preservation of the status quo. It’s taken a long time to bring about, but at long last, the scent of fiscal responsibility is finally beginning to fill the air in Washington, DC.