Democrats Hit Back on Transparency
Fighting earmark secrecy was the battle cry for Republicans last week, but Democrats are attempting to counterattack by charging that some of their fiercest GOP critics are hypocrites for keeping their own earmark requests a secret.
“All of a sudden, House Republicans have found their voice and proved the old Washington adage: Their opinions are firm, it’s their principles they’re flexible on,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.). “For 12 years, House Republicans refused to make any changes and presided over an earmark explosion.”
In a memo sent to reporters by Democratic aides, Democrats attacked several Republicans for “hypocrisy” in last week’s earmark battle, which ended when House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) was forced to abandon a plan to keep earmarks hidden until after bills had already passed the House floor.
The Republican Members also came under fire from outside watchdog groups for not releasing their earmark requests.
“How can you go to the floor and make a strong stand in favor of transparency and then not release your lists?” asked Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste. “It seems like pure politics.”
Among the many lawmakers choosing to keep their lists secret are House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Dan Burton (R-Ind.), Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), according to CAGW. All vociferously attacked the Democratic earmark plans, and Blackburn, McHenry and Foxx were specifically attacked in the Democratic memo for refusing to disclose earmarks to their local newspapers.
“This is just a smoke screen put up by liberal leadership because they feel like they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” said Blackburn spokesman Matthew Lambert.
Lambert said Blackburn supports legislation requiring all earmark requests to be made public.
Aaron Latham, spokesman for McHenry, said the North Carolina delegation has a “long-standing” practice of not releasing earmark requests until the bills are drafted “to avoid confusion.”
“We release information on requests when the Appropriations Committee completes the bill drafting process and there is something tangible and in print,” Latham said.
Burson Taylor Snyder, spokeswoman for Blunt, denied any hypocrisy.
“There is a huge difference between a chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee wanting to pass a bill with a slush fund of unmarked dollars in it” and refusing to release earmark requests, she said.
“If the bottom line is how your tax dollar is being spent, then the proper thing to do is make the list of earmarks that do get funding public in advance,” she said.
But CAGW’s Paige didn’t buy that argument. Paige said taxpayers want to know what their Representatives are requesting, not just what gets funded, and they want to know it as early as possible, not just as bills are coming to the House floor, so they can impact the process.
“I think it shows you the character and the nature of the Member when you see what they are throwing into the pot,” Paige said. “What they say on the House floor should jibe with what they’re doing in private.”
There are 32,000 entries in a House Appropriations Committee database listing every request for an earmark by every Member of Congress, but the list is kept under lock and key.
The public will never see those requests, unless an earmark makes it into a bill. Members from other committees aren’t allowed to see the requests either.
Obey has argued that allowing the public access to the database would require his staff to waste time answering endless telephone calls about requests that had no chance of becoming law.
But Paige said that releasing the requests early would give the public more time to scrutinize them for waste. “How does it follow that David Obey and his staff should be vetting them? That gives me no confidence. This should be public,” she said.
Paige said her organization has already called every office once asking if Members will release their lists, but only about 10 have agreed to do so to date. “We’ve gotten a lot of noes,” she said.
Several of the leading Republican critics of the earmarking process, including House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) and Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), did not request earmarks. Others, including Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) and former RSC Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), have released their earmark requests.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) released his list June 6 and wrote a letter to his fellow Members asking them to follow suit.
“Constituents want to know that the project requests we make benefit our communities, our country, and don’t line our own pockets,” he wrote. “While the Appropriations Committee may continue to protect the secrecy of Member project requests, the voluntary disclosure of project requests by Members increases transparency and is a step toward restoring public confidence in the House of Representatives.”
Emanuel apparently now agrees, releasing his list of earmark requests Monday. “In the spirit of this effort to make the process more transparent, I am happy to make public today the complete list of meritorious projects for which I have requested federal help,” he said in a statement.
“I have never opposed the ability of Members of Congress to direct federal funds to vital programs and projects,” he said. “But the taxpayers deserve to know where their dollars are being spent and that no hidden agendas are being served.”