OMB to post all earmarks on website

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will step up the administration’s effort to cut earmarks by posting on its website next week all earmarks identified by federal agencies in fiscal year 2005 appropriations bills.

The effort is designed to create a baseline for reducing the total number and cost of earmarks by half, a goal set out by President Bush at the beginning of the year. OMB is using fiscal year 2005 appropriations bills because it sees that year as the most representative and recent year for earmarks.

OMB also asked federal agencies to provide data by Feb. 28 on earmarks in certain authorization bills, such as the 2002 farm bill and 2007 Department of Defense Authorization Act. In a January memo, OMB Director Rob Portman set a March 7 deadline for OMB to complete a review of submissions, and a March 12 deadline for posting information on the Internet.

OMB spokeswoman Christin Baker said the work has proved to be a massive undertaking, and the posting could slip past March 12. But she said OMB’s goal is to post the earmarks next week.

Getting earmarks under control is expected to be a major political issue in Washington this year following controversies surrounding earmarks for a $230 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in 2005 and a $700 million “Railroad to Nowhere” in 2006.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) has already called for a 50 percent cut in the dollar amount for earmarks in appropriations bills “relative to the amounts planned” in fiscal year 2006. At the same time, he has said that lawmakers this year will consider earmarks included in the fiscal year 2007 spending bills that were not approved by the new Congress.

Separately, Portman last month issued a directive calling on agencies to de-fund earmarks that are not explicitly spelled out in statutory text. This would prevent funding for thousands of earmarks included in report language or other written or oral communications from Congress, according to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

How earmarks are defined will be critical in determining how deeply a 50 percent reduction will cut, sources said. For example, it is unclear exactly how Obey would define the amounts of earmarks planned for 2006.

Obey also has specified that the 50 percent reduction in earmark dollars would not be applied to project-based accounts such as Army Corps of Engineers projects, but it is unclear exactly how OMB or Congress will define project-based accounts. One source said this could also include military construction projects.

The Portman memo defines an earmark as funds provided by Congress for projects or programs in which the administration has little or no control over the funds-allocation process. It also specifies that earmarks include add-ons to administration funding requests; carve-outs in which Congress places restrictions on some portion of funding; and funding provisions that are so specific that only one grantee can qualify for funding.

In addition, the memo draws a distinction between earmarks and “un-requested” funding, which is defined as any additional funding provided by Congress that the administration does not request. Earmarks represent only the “un-requested” funding that would shift programmatic control.

Officials at two government watchdog groups said the OMB’s posting of earmarks should put more pressure on the government to reduce the number of earmarks attached by lawmakers to appropriations bills and other legislation.
“We’re happy with any step the administration of Congress can take to put light on the earmark process,” said Erich Zimmermann, a senior policy analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense, which monitors earmarks. “Anything that increases pressure on Congress to reduce the number and cost of earmarks is helpful,” agreed Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

Zimmerman said the pressure from members of Congress, the administration and outside groups could create the perfect political storm to usher in significant reductions in earmarks.  

According to the “Pig Book” released on March 7 by Zimmerman’s group, 2,678 pork-barrel projects were included in the Defense and Homeland Security Appropriations acts for fiscal year 2007, at a cost of $13.2 billion. This is actually much less than the $29 billion in pork reported by the group last year, and reflects the fact that Congress only approved two appropriations bills in 2006. The continuing resolution funding the government for the remainder of fiscal year 2007 placed a moratorium on earmarks.

OMB asked agencies to assemble certain information with each earmark, such as the recipient, the address and the cost. It also asked agencies to specify whether the amount provided is sufficient to complete the project, but it did not ask agencies to provide the name of the lawmaker responsible for the earmark.

Agencies are required to say whether the earmark is a first-time or continuing item, and whether the earmark is in statutory language, report language or other language.

Schatz said he wished the administration had gotten tough on earmarks sooner, such as by vetoing the 2005 transportation bill that included the so-called Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska. But he credited the administration for pushing back against last year’s Railroad to Nowhere in Mississippi. Schatz added that Portman, a former lawmaker from Ohio who took the reins at OMB last year, could be effective in working on members of Congress to get earmarks under control.