Politics & Policy

Want Some Water with that Pork?

A first demonstration of the ethics bill's flaws.

Ever hear the one about the bill that went into conference, then got so fat that it couldn’t fit back out the door?

That’s what has happened to Congress’s Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2007. The Senate passed a $14 billion version of this spending bill in May, which funds federal water projects, and sent it to conference with the House. The same bill emerged from conference last week, and passed the Senate overwhelmingly yesterday, as a $23 billion spending bill. That’s a 64-percent increase in just four months — sounds like a wildly successful hedge fund’s return, not the growth of a bill that authorizes spending for the federal government.

Where did all the extra money come from? Much of it is earmarks. But some of it — between $1 billion and $2 billion — comes from new “earmarks” that were not voted on in the original House or Senate versions of the bill. These were added quietly in conference committee, when the two houses negotiated the final bill they would both pass. There were at least 20 such earmarks added in conference to WRDA, which authorizes spending on projects for the Army Corps of Engineers. Because they were added in conference, neither the House nor the Senate has any chance to debate or amend them.

The practice of adding extraneous earmarks in conference was supposedly curtailed by the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 — the Democrats’ ethics bill that was signed into law two weeks ago by President Bush. I noted last week that this bill would do nothing to curtail or even force real transparency for earmarks added to authorization bills like WRDA. Already, this has come true. What earmark disclosure exists has been deliberately made so difficult to find and interpret that it amounts to no disclosure at all. A list of 20 earmarks was only obtained through tedious research by the staff of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and the non-partisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Recall that as they debated that ethics bill on the floor Aug. 2, Democrats praised their own handiwork as something that would make a real difference in the way Washington’s business is done. “You go through the process, and then after the process is concluded, in the dead of night, something is stuck into a conference bill,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, complaining about the “old” way of doing things. “This practice will end…No more dark of night additions to bills.”

That must be news to Feinstein’s California colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.), who managed the WRDA bill on the floor Monday. In conference, Boxer had inserted a $685 million earmark into WRDA for a California flood-control project.

Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense asks why this provision — whether or not it proves to be a legitimate use of taxpayer money — wasn’t included in the bill originally, instead of being snuck into it in a conference. “There’s no way that a $685 million project comes as a surprise,” he says. “Certainly not to the chairman of the [Environment and Public Works] committee, Senator Boxer, who asked it to be put in there.” He also said that this particular project has been considered in the appropriations process every year since 2002, but was rejected in previous years.

DeMint took the floor Monday, as he often does, to question the addition of earmarks in conference. “I am very disappointed these provisions were added in secret,” he said. “That is not how we should do things here, and it is a direct violation of a stated goal of the ethics bill that was recently passed and signed by the president ten days ago.”

But Boxer did not appear fazed by the mention of the ethics bill. Rather, she only became upset with DeMint. “I think it is important, as colleagues come to the floor to in a way demean this process, to understand if they demean the process, they are demeaning their own communities.” Boxer then stressed the fact that all of the earmarks in WRDA were worthy projects, and the bill needed to pass. It did, with 81 votes.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward including any earmark reforms in the Democrats’ ethics bill, has already managed to circumvent his own law just ten days after it was signed. In a lengthy, technical letter to DeMint, his legal staff opened and exploited loopholes to provide an argument that goes something like this: Because WRDA merely authorizes federal projects, and does not actually provide the funding for them, its “earmarks” aren’t actually “earmarks” at all.

And that is funny. Reid’s legal team has a very different approach to this than his press staff, which, when WRDA originally passed in May, wrote a release taking credit for all the earmarks he put in the bill for Nevada, using the headline: “Reid Secures Funding for Important Nevada Water Projects.”

— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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