Obey tackles earmarks, but colleagues skeptical

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) is including language in spending bills intended to require competitive bidding on earmarks for for-profit entities.

Language in the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) spending bill states that under policies adopted by Appropriations, the use of “member earmarks awarded to for-profit entities as a functional equivalent of no-bid contracts is ended.”

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The language is also in the Homeland Security spending bill, and intended to inject competition in the spending process. A Democratic aide familiar with the new earmark initiative said all appropriations bills will carry a similar paragraph.

In addition, in every appropriations bill where projects for for-profit companies are listed, the bill will specify that the project is to be “awarded under full and open competition.”

The language shows Democratic leaders are trying to address unrest in the caucus over earmarks, including past and ongoing corruption investigations involving specific companies that have received earmarks and the lobbyists representing them.

The FBI investigation into the now-defunct lobbying firm PMA Group and campaign contributions the firm showered on members has some lawmakers skittish about doling out taxpayer dollars to specific companies without opening the process up to competitive bidding.

Earmark reform advocates in Congress such as Rep. Ron KindRon KindLawmakers, small businesses praise employee stock ownership plans Bipartisan bill would cement IRS Free File program Bottom Line MORE (D-Wis.) said the language is a move in the right direction but does not go far enough.

Kind said he would prefer an outright ban rather than language directing agencies to open up the process to competitive bidding, because he’s worried that lawmakers or agencies will find a way around the new rules. For instance, members could write the earmark language so narrowly that only one company could possibly produce the goods requested.

“I’d still like to see a bright-line rule,” Kind said. “The question is whether the language can be drafted so narrowly that the result is the same as the members’ request for the business — that’s really what we have to take a look at.”

Longtime earmark foe Rep. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeMany Republicans uninterested in being Trump’s VP: report Senate confirms Obama's long-stalled ambassador to Mexico McCain fundraiser faces felony drug charges in Arizona MORE (R-Ariz.) was even more skeptical, arguing that the language would have little to no impact on the earmarking process. He said the Department of Defense (DoD) already maintains it subjects all earmarks to competitive bidding.

“But if you ask them for a random sample of where the earmark went, they all went to the company listed [in the earmark language or member requests],” he said.

Kind and Flake teamed up to introduce a bill last month that would bar members from writing an earmark for a for-profit entity.

A spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she supports the new step, which is part of a series of new measures she, Obey and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has pledged to implement to help overhaul the House’s earmarking system.

“The Speaker is supportive [of the new competitive-bidding language] as a continuation of our efforts to reform the process,” said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami.

The language requires executive-branch agencies to issue a “request for proposal” that gives other companies an opportunity to compete for funds earmarked for a for-profit entity. It “requires the agency to evaluate all bids received and make a decision based on merit.”

“This gives the original designee an opportunity to be brought to the attention of the agency, but with the possibility that an alternative entity may be selected,” appropriators wrote.

Page six of the Homeland Security spending bill specifies that “not more than $800,000 shall be for procurement of portable solar charging rechargeable battery systems, to be awarded under full and open competition.”

Flake also has asked the DoD for the paperwork proving that the earmarks went through a competitive bidding process, but said he has been waiting for months with no response.

“Therein lies the problem,” he said. “I think everyone knows that it’s really a tough deal to get information from the DoD. But when you look at it and follow the money there’s a pretty strong relationship between the company listed and where the money goes.”

The close correlation, he argues, is motivated by the agency’s fear of angering the powerful lawmaker and has little to do with a particular company having the right expertise.

“They know where their bread is buttered,” he said. “If they don’t bend to the wishes of the appropriators, they might see their funding cut the next year.”