This January, in an attempt to appeal to the voters of both parties as they basked in the glow of their recent victory, the majority leadership team in the House of Representatives promised many reforms. Among other things, the American people were informed that the new Congress would enforce a one-year moratorium upon certain special projects that often go unnoticed when they are slipped into major legislation. These appropriations are a version of what used to be known as “pork” and a way for a House Member to “bring home the bacon” to his or her constituents. Nowadays these programs are called “earmarks.” They are discretionary appropriations directed at a specific program or a specific group of people. Earmarks can be found almost everywhere in the federal budget and for almost any project that someone or some interest group wants the Federal Government to pay for. Earmark appropriations may range from several thousand to more than a billion dollars per item.
The new majority in Congress said it was different from the old majority and that multi-million dollar bridges to nowhere and money for frivolous projects would be a thing of the past. This is what they said and are on record saying on television and in newspapers all across the country barely two months ago yet their self-declared moratorium on earmarks seems to be falling apart already.
In December of 2006, before being sworn in officially, the House Leadership declared its intent to extend the federal budget for most agencies under a Continuing Resolution. A CR, as it is known, funds agencies at the same level as the previous year while a new budget is fought over. (The last time budgets were submitted and passed on time for the forthcoming year by both Houses of Congress was 1994.) The intent of the leadership was to remove any and all earmarks from the previous and the forthcoming 2008 budgets while making the budget process itself “more transparent.”
Within two weeks House Members of both parties were discreetly calling in favors and attempting to get their pet projects re-included without being held accountable. By February behind-the-scenes bargaining grew so common that Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Rob Portman was forced to issue a memo to the heads of federal departments and agencies telling them to ignore any requests, telephone calls or suggestions they were being given and that nothing that wasn”t written in the legislation known as HR 20 would be appropriated.
On March 23, HR 20—a supplemental bill similar to a CR—passed the House by a vote of 218 – 212. Not only is HR 20 filled with earmarks, it also contains a provision that would require the troops to come home from Iraq by September, 2008.
Here are just a few of the projects included in HR 20 as passed by the House last week: $25 million dollars for spinach growers who suffered because of an E Coli outbreak last year; $252 million for dairy farmers, inserted into the bill by the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, David R. Obey (D-WI); $1.5 billion for “livestock assistance.” Now, there may be nothing wrong with helping out our nation’s agricultural industries when they have problems “ though that subject is debatable and may be discussed at another time “ but all of these things are earmarks. And clearly it is not a coincidence that the date certain for withdrawing the troops from Iraq was included not in a direct up-and-down vote but attached to a CR which needed to be passed quickly. The deadline set, September of 2008, is also only two months before the next Presidential and Congressional elections.
Not content to break their word on earmarks after only a few short weeks, by combining the vote on Iraq with an appropriations bill the leadership made it much easier to get the votes they needed from their own Party. However, only two Republicans voted with the majority while fourteen Democrats voted against their Party leaders. Summing up the situation for many of us, Congressman Roy Blunt (R-MO) put it best. Quoted in The Washington Post, he stated that the bill as passed was “a poorly assembled wish list of non-emergency spending requests, wrapped in a date-certain declaration of defeat.”
Now a similar bill goes to the full Senate. As early as Tuesday, Republican Senators have promised to strike the Iraq ultimatum from any bill they might consider. It will be difficult for Democrats to get the 60-vote, cloture-proof majority needed to go forward with this legislation and even if they do succeed the President has vowed to veto. But the point has been made by the House of Representatives. President George W. Bush has been repudiated and the Majority Leadership has failed to keep its word on earmarks.
The dollar amounts listed in House and Senate appropriations bills look ridiculous to the average citizen. Who among us honestly can imagine what $400 million looks like? As the late Senator Everett M. Dirksen (R-IL) said about the federal budget: “A billion dollars here, a billion dollars there and pretty soon you”re into real money.” When he made those remarks about appropriations more than fifty years ago, Senator Dirksen was exaggerating. In our current era, with hundreds of millions of dollars allocated each year to federal agencies and billions for programs like Medicare and Social Security, his words seems more like an accurate assessment of the 110th Congress attitude toward earmarks and the entire budgeting process. Clearly, they can”t stop themselves from spending the taxpayers” money for even a few weeks.
A Free Congress Foundation Commentary. Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.