Politics & Policy

An Unfulfilled Promise

Transparency and accountability in earmarking.

I read with disappointment Friday’s New York Times column (“Don’t Get Rid of Earmarks”) by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D., Ill.), the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, in which he bristles at assertions that the earmarking process in Congress has become less transparent and accountable than it was under the Republican majority. The fact of the matter is that congressional Democrats are well-deserving of the criticism they’re receiving in this area.

In his column, Rep. Emanuel contends congressional Democrats “never promised” to get rid of earmarks. But a year ago, he and other prominent Democrats were more than happy to allow the American people and the media to believe Democrats had, in fact, made such a promise. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) told the Wall Street Journal in a major interview just months before the 2006 election that if she were to become Speaker, earmarks might become a thing of the past. (“Personally, myself, I’d get rid of all of them,” she told the Wall Street Journal in July 2006. “None of them is worth the skepticism, the cynicism the public has . . . and the fiscal irresponsibility of it.”)

These comments were widely reported throughout the country in September 2006 as the House debated earmark reforms, and Democrats pointed to Rep. Pelosi’s comments to support their contention that the reforms being implemented by Republicans were simply a “sham.” Rep. Emanuel and other Democratic leaders conveniently allowed Rep. Pelosi’s comments to stand, leading to widespread assumptions that congressional Democrats were calling for a ban on earmarks. Only now, nine months into their majority, are top Democrats striving to set the record straight.

More troubling, however, is Rep. Emanuel’s assertion that the earmark reforms implemented by the Democratic-controlled Congress have resulted in a system that is more open and transparent than the earmark-reform system implemented under GOP control. This is simply false. The rules and procedures adopted by the current majority leadership in the House prohibit members of Congress from forcing a debate and vote on individual earmarks contained in authorizing or tax bills that are brought to the House floor. This prohibition is a direct reversal of earmark reforms implemented by Republicans last year, which required that all earmarks in all types of bills be publicly disclosed and subject to floor challenge and debate. In fact, the Democratic prohibition originally applied to appropriations bills as well, but House Republicans in June successfully forced Democrats to restore the 2006 GOP reforms for such bills after Democrats were caught trying to use the appropriations process to create slush funds for secret earmarks.

Tax and authorizing bills have been vehicles for some of the most indefensible earmarks produced by Congress, under both Democrats and Republicans. An authorizing bill was recently the vehicle for an illegitimate earmark requested by Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.) that shifted $23 million in taxpayer funds to the so-called National Drug Intelligence Center — a facility located in Rep. Murtha’s district that was declared “expensive and duplicative” by independent government analysts. When a Republican congressman attempted to challenge this earmark, he was not only denied the opportunity to force a vote on the House floor concerning the controversial expenditure, but threatened with the loss of his own earmark — a violation of the new rules Rep. Emanuel celebrates in his column.

The rules pushed through the House by the majority leadership in January on the opening day of the current Congress do include some commendable provisions that were not part of last year’s Republican reforms, and I commended the Democratic leadership for including these provisions when they were passed. Unfortunately, since that time, the leadership has constructed a system that conveniently ensures earmarks in such bills cannot be debated or stripped out on the House floor. This is a giant step back from the reforms Republicans implemented last year on behalf of taxpayers — and until it is fixed, this loophole will continue to undermine public trust and confidence in our institution.

Rep. Emanuel is wrong to suggest the current system in Congress is as open and transparent as it needs to be or could be. Republicans should have acted far sooner to reform the earmark process when we had the majority, and our failure to do so contributed to the loss last November. But while Republicans have gotten the message the hard way, the Democratic majority now appears resigned to repeating our mistakes. Americans are rightly outraged that Congress has passed an “ethics reform” bill that fails to ensure all earmarks are subject to appropriate debate and scrutiny. Legislative action needs to be taken in Congress as soon as possible to remedy this problem.

Earlier this summer I introduced a resolution that would require all taxpayer-funded earmarks to be publicly disclosed and subject to challenge on the House floor. I have requested that Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) schedule this resolution for a vote to give all Members, Republican and Democrat alike, the opportunity to assure the American people that appropriate scrutiny is applied to all taxpayer-funded earmarks. I regret to report that to date, my requests have been met only with silence.

If the majority leadership in Congress is serious about bringing transparency and accountability to the earmark process, it will bring my resolution to the floor in September for an up-or-down vote by the full House. Until this has happened and the loopholes are fixed, Democrats should expect to continue to hear from Americans who believe reform of the broken earmarking process in Congress remains a woefully unfulfilled promise.

— Rep. John Boehner (R., Ohio) is House Republican Leader.


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