(Some) Earmarks Open to Scrutiny

Posted March 12, 2007 at 6:33pm

For the House of Representatives, “transparency” begins in a file drawer tucked away in a cramped, Rayburn Building office.

There, in a Republican staff office, Legislative Assistant Jason Rosa retrieves a manila folder bursting with “request letters” from Members of Congress to the leaders of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, each one the initial prayer that, if granted, will blossom into an earmark, each one dated and signed by the Member making the request.

And for the first time, these documents are public. Sort of.

The Democratic leadership of the 110th Congress made transparency one of the top agenda items of its first 100 days, and the House adopted new rules requiring that bills contain a list of earmarks and the names of the Members who requested them. The first real test of this commitment to earmark disclosure is the SAFETEA-LU technical corrections bill, which the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved March 1.

The bill essentially is a long list of changes to the longer list of earmarks that were originally approved in the 2005 highway bill, so the earmark requests in Rosa’s file drawer mostly are for amendments to an existing earmark. For example, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) asks that the words “Navy Pier” be dropped from an earmark for a Chicago transportation museum, so the money can go to the local Children’s Museum’s transportation exhibit instead. Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) asks for permission for Dayton to switch funding from an “intermodal rail feasibility study” to bus system upgrades, because the rail study was to support an air tanker contract at a nearby airbase, and the contract has fallen through.

If the earmark requests mostly are parochial and mundane, what is remarkable is that they are public, although there remains some question about exactly how public they are.

A Democratic spokesman for the committee said the printed bill will carry a list of earmark sponsors, and said the committee could not provide access to the request letters before that time. The committee is expected to issue the report on the bill this week.

But Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the committee’s ranking member, decided to take transparency a step further. In January he declared that “anyone who wishes to know the Republican sponsors of specific projects in legislation being considered by this committee … will be able to access that information.” Mica said the Republican earmark requests would be on file in the committee’s office for public review.

In fact, Rosa’s file folder includes about 100 request letters from members of both parties, including some big names who might not be expected to need a request letter. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), who happens to be the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has filed request letters for a handful of earmarks, including the unusual request that the $750,000 set aside for a project in his district be canceled. “I would like these funds reprogrammed to Rep. Collin Peterson’s district,” Oberstar wrote, and sure enough, the final bill approved by the committee struck the central Minnesota bypass project and designated the money for road construction in Moorhead, Minn., in Peterson’s district.

Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the former Speaker, asked the committee to reword a $2.4 million project to improve a railroad crossing in his district, because the language in the SAFETEA-LU bill only allows “increasing the height” of the railroad underpass, and that may not be the most cost-effective way to tackle to project. The committee obliged.

While the technical corrections bill carries no new money, that didn’t stop some Members from asking for the moon. California Republican Rep. Gary Miller asked the committee to authorize $390 million for construction along state Route 91, a major east-west artery through the suburbs south of Los Angeles. The request was not included in the final bill.

And while most requests were for one or two small fixes, some Members submitted a laundry list of ideas. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), whose last name is essentially synonymous with the term “earmark” thanks to his father’s long tenure on the same committee, filed a complete report with charts and tables describing the projects he wanted to add, subtract or change. Among the new projects that the committee approved for Shuster: $500,000 for road improvements around the Penn State University baseball stadium. But the money for this project comes from reductions to other projects in his district.

Beyond the special projects, the technical corrections bill also carries some legislative language, which prompted a request from Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) for an amendment that would allow states to use “ignition interlock” devices to prevent drunken driving instead of simply suspending the license of a repeat offender. The devices, which require the driver to pass a breathalyzer test before the vehicle will start, are supported by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and are made by a handful of companies nationwide. One of the major manufacturers and a national distributor of the devices are in Boswell’s district; the amended language is in the committee print.

Democratic leadership aides say the language of the earmark disclosure rule was written with the intent of forcing as much “sunlight” as possible, though procedures for disclosure were not determined by the Speaker’s office. The rule has generated a lot of discussion among committee staff about what counts as an earmark, but as one leadership aide said, the general rule should be “when in doubt, disclose.” Jim Berard, spokesman for the T&I Democrats, said there was some question about whether the disclosure rules apply to the SAFETEA-LU technical corrections bill at all, since it is mostly items that were previously approved, and the House passed a corrections bill last year containing a lot of the same provisions. (The Senate failed to pass the companion measure.)

One Democratic staffer said the procedures for disclosure probably will evolve over time, as each committee figures out the most efficient way to make earmarks public. “We have a lot of commitment to disclosure,” this source said, but the details “will probably be set by precedent.”

The precedent set by Mica is that a person can walk into the office and ask to see the request letters. “Given the horrible reputations that earmarks have and the horrible abuses there have been,” Mica said in an interview, “the least I could do was require Republican Members [to release the request forms].” Mica believes his colleagues “feel very comfortable with it because it also gives their projects transparency and more credibility in the progress.” In short, Mica said, Members want to be able to claim credit for projects that are worthwhile.

Advocates of open government applauded the Transportation panel for making the request letters public, but suggest that there is still far to go to achieve full transparency.

David Williams, vice president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, said, “That’s fantastic that you were able to look at these things. … It’s a baby step, and we are happy with baby steps.” However, “not every American has the ability to fly to Washington and go the committee offices. That’s why there needs to be an electronic database of these things.”

Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies at the free-market Cato Institute, agreed that the goal is to have much broader distribution of the earmark information, but he said that Congress clearly is moving in the right direction. “It is telling that you could have gone to a Republican office and gotten that,” he said. “You could not have gone to a Republican office and gotten that a couple of years ago.”