Democrats Gut Earmark Reform

Earmark reform was supposed to be one of the top priorities for the new Democratic majorities.  Unfortunately the story of earmark reform has been apparent public victories for transparency and accountability, followed by behind-the-scenes retrenchment to allow business-as-usual to continue.  In the House we saw the spectacle of Democrats trying to circumvent their earmark rules by moving all earmarks into conference, an effort that House conservatives defeated.  In the Senate, however, earmark reform rules, although passed unanimously, have failed to take effect at all.  Yesterday the House voted overwhelmingly to pass a lobbying bill that included Senate earmark reforms, but this apparent victory is actually a major setback for earmark reformers.

The story starts all the way back on January 16th, when Democrats agreed to a strong bipartisan earmark reform package that passed the Senate unanimously.  Unfortunately, 195 long days later, the same old, un-reformed earmark process remains in place in the Senate even as 2008 appropriations bills are moving along.  Now that the Democratic leadership appears willing, finally, to stop obstructing earmark reform, the package they are moving looks disturbingly different from what they agreed to back in January.

The January reform package, embodied in an amendment sponsored by earmark-reform hero Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was adopted unanimously, on a 98 to 0 vote.  Unfortunately, the amendment was part of a broader ethics bill that would have to be passed by the House to carry the force of law.  The Senate, of course, if it were serious about earmark reform, could adopt its own rules change without House action, and DeMint has repeatedly offered a resolution to do just that — put into effect immediately what the Senate has already agreed to unanimously. Democrats objected each time.

The only reason for delay, and insisting on including the rules in a broader bill subject to negotiation with the House, was to water down the reforms.  It’s clear that pork-friendly lobbyists and politicians are trying to water down any new reporting requirements to keep the Washington favor-factory open for business.  They know that the best first step in ending wasteful, unaccountable government spending is to make the appropriations process open and transparent. That’s why they oppose the efforts of Sen. DeMint and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) decided to circumvent the earmark reformers by writing a new bill, in secret, and using a so-called “ping-pong” strategy, which avoids conference committee by having both chambers pass the same bill.  Amazingly, Republicans could not even get a copy of the new bill as recently as 8:30AM yesterday, less than two hours before the bill was on the House floor.  Where did they finally get a copy of the new lobbying reform bill?  From a lobbyist.  How ironic.

The earmark provisions of the new bill represent a substantially eviscerated reform.  Here are some particulars: the DeMint Amendment prohibited senators from trading earmarks for votes; it prohibited senators and their staff from pushing for earmarks that would financially benefit themselves, their families, or their staff; it required that all earmarks be publicly disclosed in an online searchable database 48 hours before being subject to a vote; it required 67 votes to waive the earmark rules; it required that all earmark certifications be posted on the Internet within 48 hours.  

None of these commonsense measures remains in the new Reid Bill.  They have all been gutted, and thus overall earmark reform has been watered down beyond all recognition.  It is hard to imagine a valid policy argument against any of these gutted provisions, which are simply good-government measures to ensure accountability and transparency while avoiding any appearance of impropriety.

Democrats have also stripped one of the key provisions of the original House bill — the provision that closes the taxpayer-funded lobbyist gift-ban loophole.  Under current law, lobbyists using taxpayer dollars, mostly working for state and local governments or public universities, are completely exempt from the House gift-ban and Senate gift-limit of $50.  If a lobbyist is spending taxpayer dollars, gifts are completely unlimited, and often include lavish travel and tickets to exclusive sporting events.  This egregious loophole was closed by a Boehner-Flake amendment included in the House ethics bill.  That amendment was stripped from the new bill, leaving the loophole intact and undoing one of the key victories of the year for good government.

It is sadly ironic that reform legislation ostensibly designed to make government more transparent and accountable has been rewritten in secret, closed-door sessions, with groups like mine, Americans for Prosperity, and other grassroots activists having to rely on rumors and leaks until the bill was dropped directly onto the House floor yesterday, and rushed through under suspension of the rules with just 40 minutes of debate.

None of this is necessary.  If Democrats want to take seriously their professed commitment to fiscal responsibility, accountability, and transparency, their leadership should move to adopt the unanimously supported DeMint Amendment as a standalone resolution, and then proceed to conference on the original ethics bill, discarding the new version that was jammed through the House yesterday.  If they fail to do so, then the voters who punished Republicans for earmark profligacy in 2006 may do the same to Democrats in 2008.