Pork Rules

Posted June 12, 2007 at 4:11pm

Under furious attack from editorial writers and Republicans, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) has come up with a new disclosure policy on earmarks. It’s better than his previous one — the “air-drop” policy — but it’s a far cry from full transparency.

In a remarkable press conference Monday in which he read nearly every word of a 14-page earmark policy declaration before taking questions, Obey pledged that Democrats would fully disclose every earmark and its sponsor by the end of July.

That kind of disclosure would be only partially in keeping with the earmark rules Republicans put into place in September — after they got into no end of political trouble for corrupt, opaque special-interest pork trading. But the GOP rule made it possible for earmarks to be individually challenged during debate on appropriations bills.

This year, despite promises to run the most open and honest House ever, Democrats began by making sure that no challenges would be in order if Obey certified that a bill was free of earmarks.

On top of that, late last month Obey announced that earmarks would not be included in House bills this year, but would be inserted (air-dropped) into House-Senate conference reports — which, of course, are not amendable. He blamed Republicans for making the policy necessary — specifically, their failure to pass appropriations bills last year, necessitating time-consuming work this year on a continuing resolution and the Iraq War supplemental.

Practically no one bought the excuse. It was denounced by Republicans and editorialists as a gross violation of Democratic promises, a “gutting” of GOP reforms, a retreat into secret dealings and a guarantee of fiscal and ethical abuse. As the House began processing four appropriations bills this week, Republicans promised to resort to obstructionist tactics to protest Obey’s lack of openness.

So, on Monday, he announced the new policy: Earmarks will be fully disclosed prior to the August recess, after House voting but before House-Senate conferences, and may be challenged by writing a letter to the Appropriations Committee. After considering defenses from their sponsors, Obey will decide whether to put earmarks into conference reports. There still will be no votes on the issue.

Obey reiterated this system was necessitated by time constraints that made it impossible to vet 32,000 earmark requests before upcoming votes on appropriations bills. Asked if he would revert to a policy of full and early disclosure next year, he said he wanted to but couldn’t rule out the possibility that specific circumstances would arise.

That simply isn’t good enough. Obey should not only be disclosing all earmarks before House voting, but all earmark requests. Earmarks should be open to public vetting, full debate and floor challenge.

Obey threatened that if Republicans continued to “demagogue” and “politicize” the earmark issue, “There will be no earmarks for anybody.” He asserted that Republicans truly were upset only that he was shrinking the volume of special-interest projects. Do we believe this? There’s one way to judge — fully disclose all earmark requests so everyone can see who wants what pork.