Guarding the Purse Strings

Members of Congress are making the earmark process more transparent, but they’re still asserting their authority to direct money to special projects.

Want a bridge to somewhere? How about a library or a community center? Well, the newly remodeled Earmark Store is open for business. The major renovation? Larger windows so folks on the outside can watch members of Congress do their shopping.

Anyone who thought that the absence of earmarks in the fiscal 2007 joint resolution that Congress passed last month signaled a new trend was mistaken. Lawmakers jealously guard their many powers of the purse. Just ask Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. He'll gladly spend a few hours describing the authority that the Constitution grants Congress.

But the revamped Earmark Store is advertising less, not more, this year. Shopkeeper David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, has announced that his panel intends to allow only half as much earmark spending as Congress approved in fiscal 2006. Exempt from the clampdown, however, are programs that by their nature are "project-based," such as the Army Corps of Engineers' levees, appropriators said.

In the House, earmark season is well under way. Appropriators notified members by letter that they must submit all earmark requests for the fiscal 2008 budget to the relevant subcommittee by March 16. The requests, with all sorts of justifications attached, are sent electronically. If members still want earmarks that were axed out of the fiscal 2007 joint resolution, they must resubmit them.

And this year, under a new House rule, members must also verify in writing that they have no personal financial interest in their requested earmarks. At the subcommittee level, all requests will remain confidential. (Last year, some Republican appropriators threatened to go public with earmark requests submitted by outspoken critics of earmarking.) Sponsors of earmarks will be identified only when subcommittee-approved requests advance to the full Appropriations Committee.

Gee, having to accept responsibility for seeking a new bridge for your district -- that's a heavy burden? "People are happy to claim credit for many of those [projects]," noted Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the harshest opponents of the earmarking process. "They're happy to take a victory lap."

The House changed its earmarking process by amending its rules. The Senate has not yet changed its process, because leaders in that body want to do it by statute, said Senate Rules Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "It remains unresolved because the House has not passed a bill," she told National Journal. Of course, the Senate hasn't passed one either.

Meanwhile, a few other wrinkles have popped up this year. Flake, for instance, praised Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman for directing executive branch departments and agencies to ignore fiscal 2006 earmarks contained in committee reports. Flake said he worries that rather than resubmitting axed earmarks, powerful lawmakers will call federal agencies directly to lobby for their projects.

Portman addressed that concern in a February memo: "While the administration welcomes input to help make informed decisions, no oral or written communication concerning earmarks shall supersede statutory criteria, competitive awards, or merit-based decision-making."

Portman's instructions notwithstanding, Flake expects that lawmakers will pressure agencies to fund their pet projects. "If we do hear evidence that they are, I will go to the floor with a privileged resolution requesting an investigation," he vowed.

But Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who defends earmarks as a fair way to ensure that needed public projects get funded, said, "I am concerned about the letter Portman put out." He contended that Portman should warn executive branch heads that appropriators are very serious about the funding directions that they include in committee reports.

In shopper Simpson's view, Portman should tell agency chiefs that they ignore that guidance "at their own risk."

In other words, even during remodeling, the Earmark Store never really stopped doing business.

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