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Earmark Changes Unveiled

Members of Congress will no longer be able to hide earmark requests behind a cloak of secrecy after the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees announced new sunshine rules Tuesday.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and his Senate counterpart, Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), said that starting with the fiscal 2010 appropriations bills, they would require Members to post their requests on their Web sites at the time they make them, and explain the purpose of the earmark and why it is a valuable use of taxpayer funds.

The move is already causing private grumbling among some rank-and-file Members.

The committees have long kept earmark requests secret, making it impossible to compare funded requests and those ultimately spurned by the committee. Journalists, other Members advocating earmark reforms, and outside groups have long sought access to those requests.

The committee chairmen also said earmark disclosure tables will be available during subcommittee markups rather than during full committee markups.

Reformers had questioned the past practice of releasing earmarks only during the final markup, which made it difficult for the public to know what was being funded in time for the committee to make changes.

The chairmen also agreed to cut the overall level of earmarks to 50 percent of the 2006 level for non-project-based accounts. According to the chairmen, the fiscal 2008 spending bills were already cut 43 percent from the 2006 level, so this means a modest additional reduction.

Earmarks would be held below 1 percent of discretionary spending in future years, they said. That amounts to about $10 billion a year.

“Today we build on the unprecedented reforms made to earmarks since Democrats took control of the Congress in 2007,” Obey and Inouye said in a statement. “These reforms mean that earmarks will be funded at a level half as high as they were in 2006, face greater public scrutiny, and members of Congress will have more time and access to more information before they vote on bills and as they prepare amendments.”

Steve Ellis, vice president of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that while he was encouraged by the announcement, he needs to see the details of the new policy to be able to judge its reach. To bring real transparency to the process, the disclosures should include the dollar amounts of the requests and their intended recipients, he said.

“I don’t want to be a nattering nabob of negativity,” Ellis said. “It’s something we’ve wanted. Now it’s just a matter of fine-tuning it and making it better.”

Ellis’ group over the summer found that 76 lawmakers disclosed their earmark requests online — including President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden. Another 46 didn’t request any earmarks, meaning that a total of 112 Members are entirely transparent about their requests.

“I’ve been posting my requests for the entire time I’ve been in Congress,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, who praised the move. “I’m from the Sunshine State.”

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