No August Recess?

Posted July 10, 2007 at 3:46pm

After much sturm und drang, the House has a full disclosure policy on earmarks, at least as far as appropriations are concerned. Now the Senate is heading for turmoil on the issue, with even the August recess in doubt.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is threatening to keep the chamber in session during August if leaders do not agree to adopt a Senate rule requiring full earmark disclosure.

Vacation plans aside, we think that on the merits Senate leaders should accede to DeMint so disclosure of spending requests is not delayed until President Bush signs an ethics reform measure that still has not even gone to a House-Senate conference.

The House, in one of its first actions in the 110th Congress, passed a rule requiring disclosure of the sponsorship of all special benefit requests by Members in appropriations, authorization and tax bills. The Senate lopsidedly passed similar requirements — though excluding tax bills — but as part of its ethics reform bill, not as a Senate rule.

House implementation of its rule surely has been rocky. Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) tried to delay disclosure until appropriations were at the House-Senate conference stage. A Republican-media uproar forced him to guarantee disclosure before a bill hits the House floor.

The House rule is still weak when it comes to taxes. Disclosure is required only when a tax provision affects 10 or fewer taxpayers. But at least the House’s policy is set and working as the chamber processes appropriations.

In the Senate, Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) agreed to impose a disclosure rule voluntarily, but reports issued by the Congressional Research Service and Taxpayers for Common Sense show major omissions in the six bills processed by the committee so far.

For instance, the military construction-Veterans Affairs spending bill contained 82 earmarks attributed to specific Members, but 188 that were not. Moreover, Taxpayers for Common Sense noted that Member earmarks are scattered throughout each hefty appropriations bill, not listed together, making them difficult to identify.

DeMint is demanding immediate implementation, by Senate rule, of a policy that the Senate overwhelmingly agreed to in its ethics legislation in January. Besides threatening to object to a recess in August, he is blocking the naming of Senate ethics conferees until a rule is adopted.

Senate Democratic leaders are resisting his move and are insisting on going to conference on the ethics bill, although they have yet to explain why already agreed-upon earmark rules can’t be adopted immediately.

We don’t oppose earmarks in principle. Members come to Washington, D.C., partly to see to it that their districts and states get federal help. But, as events last year amply demonstrated, earmarks can be a source of rotten corruption. Full disclosure is crucial, and the Senate ought to institute it forthwith.