Backlash against earmarks gains steam
The disclosure requirement has surfaced in previous years only to be shelved quickly. But with the scandals surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif., some modest changes are seen as inevitable. "I think we've reached a tipping point," longtime "pork" opponent Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters Tuesday.
McCain and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania are drafting a comprehensive lobbying overhaul package that might include changes to the earmarking process. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and House Rules Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., who is spearheading the House lobbying package, said Tuesday they would develop earmark proposals in consultation with House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.
A spokesman for Lewis said discussions with House GOP leaders are ongoing, but noted that overall earmarks were down sharply last year -- the fiscal 2006 Labor-HHS bill was stripped of $1 billion in earmarks and the less-publicized Transportation-Treasury bill was $1.5 billion lighter than the previous year. While the number of Defense earmarks grew, funding was 10 percent less than fiscal 2005, he added.
Lewis is open to stricter disclosure requirements, however, and was "dismayed and astonished" that Cunningham had taken bribes from a defense contractor in exchange for legislative favors, a spokesman said. "That was really eye-opening for the chairman," he said, adding that Lewis has always evaluated each of his own earmark requests strictly on merit.
While earmark proposals are still evolving, new disclosure rules appear to be gaining steam. "This is gaining momentum by the moment and has the support of most of the House leadership," a House GOP leadership aide said. Hastert and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a leading candidate for majority leader, back the proposal, as does Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
A Dec. 28 memo on lobbying reform circulated by Frist's office cites "making earmarks transparent and justified" as one of its chief tenets. "They need to be mended, not ended, as funding for meritorious projects can be defensible and evaluatable when responsible member(s) are accountable," the memo states.
McCain and others, such as House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio -- Blunt's chief rival for majority leader -- want even tougher earmark rules. Another top GOP aide acknowledged there is pressure to do more, but that better disclosure was a positive step forward. "Sunshine is the best disinfectant," the aide said.
Republican leaders are not ready to do away with the practice of earmarking, and Hastert defended members' right to direct federal resources to their constituents as a matter of congressional prerogative.
"That's what members do. I mean, they represent their districts," Hastert said Tuesday. "They take cases to Congress and say that, 'we need this,' or, 'I need help here,' or, 'I believe that this issue should move forward.'"
He and Dreier said any changes to the process would have to be developed in conjunction with the Senate, which they indicated has a special proclivity for earmarks. "In a lot of cases, the Senate plays appropriation games," Hastert said.
There are initial indications that rebellious spending hawks in both chambers will not be satisfied merely with "sunshine" requirements for earmarks in spending bills. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., like McCain and Boehner, wants to include earmarks in the text of bills, rather than accompanying reports, to give members an opportunity to strip them on the floor.
"It is not enough for our leaders to propose reforms that might promote the appearance, but not necessarily the practice, of ethical behavior," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. McCain told reporters that a "Gang of Seven" -- including himself, Coburn, Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, John Ensign of Nevada, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Sam Brownback of Kansas -- would push "extended debate" over earmarks in future spending bills.
Still, some observers said it would be tough for the GOP Congress to shed its "drunken sailor" reputation when it comes to earmarked spending, despite newfound reform principles.
"It's kind of like a fraternity house the morning after the party," said Scott Lilly, former staff director for House Appropriations ranking member David Obey, D-Wis. Not to be outdone, Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common sense added: "It's like an alcoholic saying 'I'm down from 16 drinks a night to 12, so I'm not a drunk anymore.'"
Mark Wegner contributed to this report.