Politics & Policy

Earmark Elimination

Something stinks in Washington. It is the Republican-controlled Congress, which is becoming increasingly associated with all that the public hates about the Beltway and its practices.

The most obvious symbol of this phenomenon is Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the California Republican who resigned his House seat after admitting he accepted $2.4 million in illegal cash and gifts from lobbyists and contractors. A close runner-up is Jack Abramoff, the onetime Republican lobbyist extraordinaire who milked Indian tribes for millions and, it appears, funneled dollars to lawmakers in exchange for favors. Add to that a widespread, justified feeling that Congress cares more about pet pork projects than the national interest, and you have a public hankering for change.

Since Republicans are the governing party, this sentiment is likely to land at their doorstep. It is imperative that they begin to reform themselves, or someone else is going to do it for them. Four Democrats, Reps. David Obey, Barney Frank, David Price, and Tom Allen, have offered a good start, introducing a bill to revamp the rules and procedures of the House. We don’t endorse all their ideas, but some of them are eminently sensible and a few are objectionable only because they don’t go far enough.

They seek to curb the growth of “earmarks”–provisions attached to spending bills that direct money to particular projects. Earmarks have long been a way for congressmen to favor pet causes, but their use has skyrocketed since the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. That year, there were some 4,126 earmarks in 13 appropriations bills; last year, there were 14,040. These uses of the public largesse are often beyond silly. Veronique de Rugy of the American Enterprise Institute has compiled a list of all earmarks in the 2005 omnibus spending bill, including our favorite: $950,000 for the Please Touch Museum, wherein federal funds are advancing the important task of educating children on Contraptions A to Z.

Earmarks don’t just waste money–though that’s reason enough to oppose them. They also join lobbyists and lawmakers at the hip. Lobbyists have made a booming business of winning earmarks for their clients, and while the tactics they use to do so don’t always cross over into Cunningham territory, sleazy, parochial influence-peddling abounds.

The Democrats’ reform bill would forbid any member of Congress to advocate an earmark unless he disclosed whether he had a financial interest in or any degree of control over the entity to benefit from his proposal. It would also make it an ethics violation for a member of Congress to condition funding an earmark on a legislator’s vote on a particular bill, striking at a tactic congressional leaders often use to win votes for controversial measures. (The latter reform would be difficult to enforce–it’s not as though there are transcripts of back-room threats from appropriators.)

That’s a start. It would be better if Congress forswore the practice of earmarking altogether. Short of that, Congress could put certain bills off-limits for earmarks, or even declare a moratorium on earmarking during a specified trial period.

The bill would forbid reimbursed travel by House members and their staff unless they can attest in writing that no lobbyist is involved in the trip–something that strikes us as straightforwardly a good idea. But this proposal has a whiff of bowing to reform while preserving a congressional perk. Why not ban privately funded travel altogether?

“It is not too late

for Republicans to disinfect

themselves before they face

voters next November.”

Other proposed reforms are matters of simple efficiency and common sense: requiring that printed copies of bills be available at least 24 hours before a vote; ending the House’s extremely short work weeks (and thereby freeing up time for committee oversight); and stipulating that roll-call votes last no longer than 20 minutes unless both the majority leader and the minority leader agree otherwise (an effort to prevent drawn-out votes in which party leaders strong-arm legislators one by one into towing the line).

Unsurprisingly, when Obey and Co. introduced their bill last week, they sheathed it in the sort of partisan rhetoric that will make most Republicans reflexively reject it. That would be a mistake. Republicans didn’t invent loose practices and corruption on Capitol Hill as the Democrats suggested. Any majority will tend, over time, to become complacent and bloated–the more so the longer it has been in power. And so the vigorous spirit of reform with which Republicans ousted the fat and happy Democratic majority in 1994 has been lost.

But it is not too late for Republicans to disinfect themselves before they face voters next November. The GOP leadership should compromise with Obey-Frank on a consensus version of their reform, or offer a plan of its own that is equally or more vigorous. The Democrats didn’t change the culture of Congress when they were in charge because they thought the day would never come when their failure to act would cost them. The day came. It will come for Republicans too, unless they begin the clean-up themselves.


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