The House this week is set to take up that most rare of things: an Energy and water development spending bill free of earmarks, and one that is not making Congressional appropriators a punching bag for fiscal hawks and government watchdogs.
In what many observers had predicted would be a nearly impossible task, Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and his colleagues have produced legislation not only funding the Department of Energy — and its typically pork-laden research budgets — but also the Army Corps of Engineers, historically host to one of the most heavily earmarked parts of the federal budget.
“That’s what the moratorium means,” Taxpayers for Common Sense Vice President Steve Ellis said Tuesday, referring to House Republicans’ earmark moratorium.
Ellis, a longtime critic of Rogers and other appropriators, praised them for finding ways to write the Energy and water spending bill without earmarks.
“That’s the new reality that they’re operating under,” Ellis said.
Appropriators’ ability to put together an earmark-free bill is all the more remarkable given the history of the Energy and water measure, which has traditionally been little more than a list of pet projects.
For instance, the energy section of the bill has for years been home to such farm-state favorites as ethanol and biofuel research and development spending provisions, earmarks for wind and solar projects and research and other line items inserted by House Members and Senators for local companies and universities.
Lawmakers from across the country and political spectrum have used the Army Corps budget to secure funding for dredging projects, wetlands restoration, river-widening projects and other spending designations aimed at communities within their states and districts.
Loading up the Army Corps’ budget with earmarks has also served a secondary purpose — maintaining tight control of an agency that has long had a combative relationship with the legislative branch.
While many federal agencies have in the past had their budgets carved up by Congress to feed earmarks, the Corps has chafed more than most. That, combined with its poor track record of managing funds, has historically led Congress to repeatedly ratchet its control over the agency’s spending.
But with earmarks off the table, Republicans had to find ways to exert some control over the agency.
For instance, in the bill’s report language, the committee provides for funding for only some of the projects the White House asked for in its budget request, opting to provide funds for those that committee members felt were worthwhile.
Additionally, rather than fund a series of projects listed in the Corps’ budget request this year, Republicans opted instead to include $59 million in funding for projects in the navigation and flood control budget. The committee then required the Corps to provide Congress with a prioritized list of projects that would receive funding.
Although the committee will still lose direct control over which projects get funding, “it increases transparency by making them outline how, when and why they’re spending” funds on particular projects, said Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the committee.
Additionally, appropriators are able to maintain a certain level of control over how the Corps doles out funds “while still maintaining the earmark ban,” Hing added.
Ellis said that while Congress needs to do more to “really open that black box” of executive branch decision-making, Republicans’ approach to the Corps’ budget is a solid first step.
“You can’t just sort of have this political vacuum where [Congress is] just writing checks and letting the administration make the decisions” on where money will be spent, Ellis argued.
Ellis said that short of new legislation to create stronger controls, Congress will have to be careful to conduct oversight over federal agencies such as the Corps — and at least at this point, Rogers seems to be taking up that cause.
Although Hing said the chairman’s focus on oversight is not connected to the earmark ban, Rogers seems to take that seriously, given the committee’s schedule. Since the start of the 112th Congress, the Appropriations Committee has held 143 oversight hearings, according to Hing.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.