House and Senate appropriators impose new earmark requirements

The top two appropriators in the House and Senate are imposing new transparency requirements for members who request earmarks in spending bills, the latest response to the controversial practice.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and incoming Senate Appropriations panel Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) on Tuesday announced new steps to be implemented in this year’s appropriations process. They will require members to post their request online at the time it is made, explaining the purpose of the earmark and why it is a valuable use of taxpayer funds.

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The two spending panels will offer more time for earmarks to be scrutinized by making earmark disclosure tables publicly available on the same day as House or Senate subcommittee reports, rather than full committee reports or 24 hours before full committee consideration of appropriations legislation that has not been marked up by a Senate subcommittee.

In addition, the Appropriations chairmen pledged to further reduce earmarks to 50 percent of the 2006 levels and to be held below 1 percent of discretionary spending in subsequent years. The committee claims to have reduced 2008 earmarks to 43 percent below the 2006 level.

“Today we build on the unprecedented reforms made to earmarks since Democrats took control of the Congress in 2007,” Obey and Inouye said in a statement. “These reforms mean that earmarks will be funded at a level half as high as they were in 2006, face greater public scrutiny, and members of Congress will have more time and access to more information before they vote on bills and as they prepare amendments.”

The announcement demonstrates a new cooperation between the Senate and House spending panels.

During Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) tenure as chairman, the two panels rarely acted in concert. The new reforms also build on those enacted since Democrats took over the majority in both chambers in 2007. At that time, they imposed a moratorium on earmarks until a new process could be put in place and insisted on more transparency by requiring that each spending bill be accompanied by a list identifying each earmark and the member who requested it. They also required letters from members requesting earmarks that identify the earmark, the entity that will receive the funds, what the earmark does and a certification that neither the requesting member nor his or her spouse will benefit from it financially.

Steve Ellis, a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), offered tempered praise for the new reforms. He remains skeptical about the details of what type of information will be required and who will police it.

“This is another step in the right direction as far as earmark reform to make things more transparent and more accountable, but the devil is always in the details, we’ve found,” he said.

Ellis said last year’s reforms produced mixed results. The information members provided in their disclosure forms varied wildly, and senators were not required to specify exactly who the beneficiary was.

For example, Ellis said, senators were allowed to say that a government agency was the beneficiary even if the earmark went directly to an entity in the member’s district that had a contract with the agency. He also disputed the cuts in the level of earmarks that Democrats claimed to have made. He said they were comparing it to the 2006 spending levels that did not include the Health and Human Services appropriations bill, which usually contains the most earmarks. TCS uses the 2005 numbers, which the group considers the high-water mark for earmark abuse.

He also said he wished the committee had required members to disclose their request in one place, such as the Appropriations panel, rather than on 535 different members’ websites.

“We’ll still have to be a clearinghouse collecting that information and synthesizing it,” he said.

Rep. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Kelly, McSally virtually tied in Arizona Senate race: poll The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of the earmark process, was skeptical.

“Well, it’s a start,” he said. “I have to remind myself, whenever I get excited about reforms being announced, that they are only as good as your willingness to enforce them later.”

Flake cited multiple instances last year in which Democrats simply waived the newly enacted earmark reforms for certain bills, including the massive defense spending bill and the intelligence authorization bill, which Democrats said contained no earmarks while members were “doing their victory laps claiming credit” for some 2,000. He said pledging to limit earmarks to 2 percent of discretionary spending was particularly ridiculous in a year of unprecedented discretionary spending increases with recent economic stimulus and bailout bills.

House Minority Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFrom learning on his feet to policy director Is Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush MORE (R-Ohio) commended the new earmark reforms but said they fall short of the standards House Republicans adopted last year. For instance, there should be no more taxpayer-funded “monuments to me,” in which members earmark taxpayer funds for projects named after themselves, and members should not be allowed to “airdrop,” the practice in which earmarks are dropped into House-Senate conference reports at the last possible minute to avoid scrutiny and debate.

BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFrom learning on his feet to policy director Is Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush MORE also said the early public disclosure outlined Tuesday should apply to the 2009 omnibus spending bill the Democratic leadership plans to bring to the floor early this Congress.