It’s time for us to shed light on the earmark process

The House of Representatives is preparing to head into another appropriations cycle this summer as taxpayers become more and more restless over federal spending. They are angry not just at the level of spending but also the type of spending. Earmarks have long been a symbol of congressional waste and parochialism, but as taxpayers have been forced to curtail their household budgets, their tolerance of Washington excess has greatly diminished.

House Republicans took a huge step on meaningful earmark reform with a moratorium on all earmarks this year, while House Democrats took a much more modest step by banning private companies from receiving earmarks. Taxpayers curious about the sincerity of House Democrats’ talk on earmark reform should keep a close eye on the process this appropriations cycle. If they continue down the path they set on last year and insist on closed rules for appropriations, it will speak volumes.

In 2006, after years of privately trying to convince my colleagues in the Republican Conference that our rampant earmarking was costing us credibility among voters, I decided that it was a debate that needed to be taken to the House floor. That summer I offered 40 amendments to various appropriations bills that attempted to remove specific earmarks. Because Republicans controlled Congress and received most of the earmarks, most of my amendments targeted Republican earmarks. Needless to say, my colleagues weren’t pleased, and each of my amendments was defeated overwhelmingly. But the Republican majority recognized the importance of open rules on appropriations bills.

Republicans lost control of Congress that year, due in no small part to earmarks.  Not only did earmarks lead to a number of scandals that cast a cloud over several Republicans, but voters no longer associated Republicans with limited government and fiscal responsibility.  After all, if we couldn’t control ourselves with this highly visible 1 percent of discretionary spending, how could we be trusted to deal with larger issues like Social Security and Medicare?

Democrats recognized earmarks had made Republicans vulnerable, and they smartly exploited the issue, promising to reform the system and “drain the swamp.” However, when Democrats assumed power in 2007, the reforms they made were mostly cosmetic and even those changes were routinely waived. So that summer, I offered more earmarks amendments — 47 amendments this time, mostly targeting Democratic earmarks, as they received the majority of the earmarks.  Again, the amendments were overwhelmingly defeated.

Despite the lack of success on the floor, progress was being made.  The number of members swearing off earmarks increased, and a couple of times, individual Members and the House Appropriations Committee were forced to remove questionable earmarks before I had an opportunity to challenge them.

After the appropriations process imploded in 2008 and regular order was circumvented, the House resumed consideration of appropriations bills on the House floor last year.  By that time, there were several members ready to challenge individual earmarks. Faced with the prospect of debating dozens of earmarks on each appropriations bill, the House Democrats made a drastic and unprecedented move — they limited the number of amendments members could offer.  I was still permitted to offer 49 amendments (all were unsuccessful), but I had prepared many more targeting questionable earmarks, sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats.

This year, with no Republican earmarks, Democrats can’t be excited about the prospect of having to defend only their own earmarks on the House floor.  Log-rolling becomes far more difficult with a Republican earmark moratorium in place, and Members challenging earmarks this year might even win an amendment or two.  Of course, that’s assuming we get a chance to offer amendments.

Meager as it is, offering amendments on appropriations bills is the only opportunity for accountability that rank-and-file members have with the earmark process.  I hope Democrats won’t rob us of that opportunity this year.

Rep. Flake (R-Ariz.) serves on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.