Earmarks Deadline Extended

Posted March 21, 2007 at 6:43pm

Lawmakers seeking clarity on new earmark reform and disclosure rules got good news and bad news Wednesday.

The bad news is Members will have to wait a bit longer before they get clear guidance on the issue. The good news is that to make up for the confusion, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) has agreed to extend the annual deadline to make changes in Member project requests to April 27. The original deadline was last Friday.

“I have been very reluctant to extend the submission deadline for earmark requests because it complicates our ability to draft and consider bills in a timely fashion,” Obey wrote to Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) in a letter dated March 20. Lewis previously had sent a letter to Obey complaining of widespread confusion over the new guidelines and asking for clarity on the reforms.

“We will have to deal with the difficulties that [the extension] creates for producing bills down the line, but I hope you find this responsive to your request,” Obey wrote.

In a separate “Dear Colleague” letter to all House Members, Obey acknowledged concerns that House rules have not provided enough guidance on the new requirement for Members to file a disclosure form with each request certifying that neither they nor their spouse stand to benefit directly from the earmark.

The problem, Members said, is that there is no explicit definition of “benefit” or “financial interest” in the rules. For instance, a widely cited example is when Members make highway requests in their districts. Since Members live in their districts and could see the real estate value of their home rise as new roads are built, the line is blurred over whether such moves constitute a personal financial interest.

The Appropriations panel has not offered guidance on the rules, Obey said, because they fall under the Code of Official Conduct in House Rules, which puts it in the ethics committee’s jurisdiction.

House GOP and Democratic sources said the investigative panel is working to issue public guidance on the rules, which are expected out this week but had not been released at press time. The delay is due, in part, to the fact that the definition of an earmark is procedurally tricky in itself because it covers requests across Appropriations, authorizing, and tax-writing committees. The ethics panel is wading into new waters in defining such legislative issues.

As for Appropriations, Obey also lifted the limitation on the number of earmark requests Members are allowed to ask for from each of the panel’s 12 subcommittees. He also reminded Members that all individual and group requests must be entered into the new database and be accompanied by a disclosure form. The only requests that do not need to comply with the new requirements are “programmatic” requests, meaning they are already included in the federal budget.

The uncertainty over the new rules led three GOP Members to inform Obey, in a letter dated March 16, that they would ask for no earmarks until the issue was resolved. “We have decided to submit NO earmark requests at this time for any purpose until these issues have been resolved to the satisfaction of all Members of the House,” wrote GOP Reps. Lee Terry (Neb.), Adrian Smith (Neb.) and Vern Buchanan (Fla.).