As many Republicans and free-market conservatives lament the 2006 midterm-election sweep, it must be noted that the first day of the new House Democratic majority holds a potentially surprising and ironic silver lining for supporters of fiscal restraint and fundamental pork-barrel-earmark reform. That’s because on January 3, the new Democratic leadership will either enact the strong earmark reforms they called for two months ago, or they will be immediately exposed as purveyors of breathtaking hypocrisy.
You probably recall that in September, House Republicans pushed through a very modest internal earmark-reform rules package that requires members of Congress merely to attach their names to most earmarks. The reform was riddled with loopholes and fell far short of the comprehensive spending-reform ideals for which most taxpayer advocates had fought. While GOP House leaders admitted that their reforms were modest, due to strong opposition from members of the Appropriations Committee on both sides of the aisle, they likely represented the best set of reforms that could garner enough support to pass the House.
At the time, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi was quoted in various news accounts as calling the reform package a “sham” that “does not save one penny or prevent one earmark.” Pelosi also reportedly called it “just a political gimmick to make it look as if something is happening,” and promised that “Democrats are fighting for sweeping Congressional reforms to ensure that members are held to the highest ethical standards.” On numerous occasions Pelosi even said that she’d like to end earmarks completely.
On September 15, Congressional Quarterly paraphrased Pelosi’s spokesman as saying that the Democratic leader “would seek to enact a package with greater disclosure requirements, including both the sponsors and recipients of earmarks. It also would require lawmakers to certify that there is no financial relationship between an earmark’s author and the recipient.”
The package outlined by Pelosi’s spokesman in September was largely embodied by a package offered by Democratic congressmen Rahm Emanuel and Chris Van Hollen. This stronger Democratic package, which Republicans refused to schedule for an up-or-down vote, included many of the reforms we called for on our nationwide Ending Earmarks Express bus tour throughout this year: that members of Congress and their families cannot personally benefit from earmarks, that earmarks cannot be included in conference reports if they are not first included in earlier House- or Senate-passed legislation, and that members of Congress cannot secure earmarks for entities or lobbying firms that employ their family members or former staffers.
These are common-sense ideas that will help save taxpayers money and restore some integrity to how taxpayer dollars are spent. The big question now is whether the Democratic leaders who called for these strong pork-barrel earmark reforms in the minority will actually enact them when they become the majority. The good news for taxpayers is that we’ll be able to answer this question on the House Democrats’ very first day in the majority.
At the commencement of every new congressional session, the majority party has to approve a new set of internal rules that govern how the House is run. These rules will include guidelines for how pork-barrel earmarks can or cannot be sneaked into spending bills.
If the Democratic leaders who called for a stronger earmark-reform package in September include the reforms in their first-day rules changes, it will be a policy win for taxpayers that Republicans were either unwilling or unable to provide. And if the new Democratic leadership cynically refuses to improve on the modest reform that they recently decried as a “sham,” taxpayers will immediately know that Democrats are not serious about changing the way Washington works.
Either way, taxpayers have something to gain on January 3. Whether that turns out to be less wasteful and corrupt pork-barrel spending or the exposure of blatant hypocrisy in the new congressional leadership is completely up to Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats. And the taxpayers will definitely be watching.
– Tim Phillips is president of Americans for Prosperity, which visited 37 states and drove more than 10,000 miles on the Ending Earmarks Express road tour this year.