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Scope of Earmark Reform Expanding

The scope of still-unwritten earmark reform legislation in the House appears to be widening, with members of the Appropriations Committee and a top Republican leader endorsing the idea of increased transparency on tax and authorization bills, rather than just on spending measures.

While the debate over proposed changes to travel and gift rules has attracted the majority of media attention, earmark reform has the potential to more drastically change the way Congress does business.

The Senate is debating a reform package this week that would increase transparency and allow earmarks to be stripped out of conference reports on the floor.

Though the House’s reform package is still at a much earlier stage in the process, the appetite for reforming the earmarking process on a variety of bills is growing, and it’s shared by House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“I do believe that earmark reform will be an essential part of this package,” Boehner said Tuesday at his weekly session with reporters, adding that he expected “single-source grants in authorization bills to be part of this [and] narrow issues in a tax bill.”

That view is one that has been endorsed more vocally in recent days by members of the Appropriations Committee, who have been lobbying to make sure that their panel doesn’t get singled out in an earmark reform package.

In a March 1 “Dear Colleague” letter, Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) — an Appropriations member — pointed out that the most notorious recent earmark — the Ketchikan Bridge in Alaska, dubbed by its critics the “Bridge to Nowhere” — first appeared not in an appropriations bill but rather in an authorization measure.

“In fact,” Knollenberg wrote, “the recently enacted [highway bill] included approximately $24 billion worth of earmarks — roughly $7 billion more than were included in all the FY06 appropriations bills combined.”

Knollenberg called the highway bill “a shining example of why any genuine earmark reform must include equal treatment of both authorizing and appropriations bills.”

Another appropriator, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), went further in his own “Dear Colleague” letter last week, defending his committee’s earmarking as “consistent with the conservative principles I hold dear” by responding to the requests of local officials instead of “some nameless, faceless bureaucrat in Washington, D.C.”

Simpson supports increasing transparency in the earmarking process and, like Knollenberg, wants to ensure that authorization bills are subjected to similar scrutiny. In an interview last week, Simpson also raised the idea, as Boehner did, that tax bills should also be subject to increased transparency.

While spending bills are often blamed for allocating funding to eyebrow-raising projects, tax bills have also drawn fire for carving out loopholes aimed at specific industries or companies.

The best known example in recent years was the 2004 FSC-ETI bill, which contained dozens of specialized tax breaks for a variety of products and services, ranging from archery equipment and fishing tackle boxes to ceiling fans and dog tracks.

A Ways and Means spokeswoman declined to comment on the possibility that the panel’s bills could be the subject of reform legislation.

It appears likely that whatever package moves through the House will include a requirement that the sponsors of specific earmarks in bills should be publicly identified in the bill or the bill report.

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