Posted May 12, 2008 at 12:26pm

In the wake of several scandals involving Members of Congress doing legislative favors for their friends and financial supporters, Congress last year implemented new rules for “earmarks,” in an effort to bring more transparency to the process.

Roll Call has extensively covered this new system and the controversies surrounding earmarks and now has joined with C-SPAN to present a special report about earmarks — what they are, how they are used by Congress and where the dangers for abuse may lie. “Earmark Report” aired Feb. 29. (Click here to see the video.)

What Is an Earmark?

Congress has earmarked funding for specific projects for more than 100 years, but the process was rare before the 1980s, when it began to grow dramatically.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the appropriations bills for fiscal 1994 contained 4,200 earmarks worth a total of $31 billion. By 2005, the number of earmarks had risen to 15,500, with a total value of a little more than $50 billion.

For the current fiscal year, the Office of Management and Budget has estimated that Congress approved 11,700 earmarks with a total value of about $17 billion — not including about $20 billion in projects “earmarked” by the president.

Until this year, there was no way for the public to know who had made a request for a project, unless the Member of Congress took credit in a press release. A lawmaker could thereby secretly request money for a project that would benefit friends, family members or contributors.

When the Democrats took control of the Congress, they instituted new earmark disclosure rules and promised to reduce the number of earmarks. The disclosure rules essentially require two things: first, that every earmark in every bill be identified by the name of the Member who requested it; second, that Members of Congress certify that they have no financial interest in the project — that is, they are not directing federal money to a company that employs their spouses and they will not profit directly from the construction project in their districts.

This disclosure system has greatly increased the transparency of earmarks — who benefits, what the project is for and which Member of Congress asked for the money. But the system still has shortcomings. Some of the earmarks listed in legislation are very clear; some say almost nothing. The certification letters provided in the House and Senate spell out in more detail who actually receives the money and what the project is. For the 2008 omnibus appropriations bill, these certification letters were printed in bound volumes but were not made available on the Internet. But for many of the earmarks, there is enough information to allow you to search the Internet to find out more.

Congress is still ironing out kinks in the disclosure system. For example, the searchable version of the bill that we have been viewing today was not available until several weeks after the bill had been signed by the president. The bill was assembled in a conference committee between the House and Senate and passed both houses in a matter of days after it was released for public inspection. It was essentially impossible to analyze the earmarks in the bill in any kind of detail before the bill was signed into law.

There has been some question about whether authorization bills require the same disclosure as appropriations bills. In an authorization bill, Congress dictates that the Department of Interior — for example — is allowed to spend up to $15 million to establish the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area in Illinois. But the bill does not actually provide the money for that project. Once it is authorized, the supporters of the project will have to pursue a second earmark in an appropriations bill to actually provide money for that project. This can be likened to a fishing license. While a fishing license does not bring you fish, you can’t get fish without one, and once you have one, you are on your way to getting fish. An authorization bill is a license to fish for appropriations earmarks.

Nevertheless, the rules adopted require Congress to release earmark lists and conflict-of-interest certifications for authorization bills as well. That process is run by each committee managing an authorization bill, and some of them haven’t really figured out how to make it work.

Will There Be More Earmark Reform?

While members of both parties request earmarks, House Republicans in January sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) demanding a moratorium on all earmarks and asking her to convene a bipartisan panel to review the process. Pelosi and the Democrats said they felt comfortable that the reforms implemented last year are working, the number of earmarks having been essentially cut in half from the year before. While she did not respond to the Republican request for a bipartisan panel, she said Democrats are willing to tweak the process if necessary to improve disclosure.

President Bush issued an executive order directing agencies to ignore earmarks in future appropriations bills, but it does not apply to last year’s spending bill, and since the next spending bills will not be passed until the last months of Bush’s presidency — at the earliest — it is unlikely that the order will have much effect.

Republicans are likely throughout the year to make regular motions trying to remove earmarks from bills and highlighting specific projects that they consider wasteful or suspicious. Democrats are likely to accuse the Republicans of grandstanding for political purposes, and, in the House at least, they will probably have enough votes to head off Republican amendments.