Earmark Showdown Looms

Posted May 20, 2008 at 6:32pm

The House Armed Services Committee is setting up what could be the first showdown with President Bush over Congressional earmarks.

The panel included a provision in the massive Defense authorization bill, set to hit the floor today, that rejects Bush’s demand that Members of Congress disclose all their earmarks in the text of bills. The five-line provision says simply that the president’s executive order, issued earlier this year, “shall not apply” to the bill.

Instead, the measure lists 541 individual projects, worth about $9.9 billion, in an accompanying report. Of that total, about $7.35 billion would be directed to funding five pricey weapons programs.

It is not yet clear how far the White House will go to defend its relatively new role as an anti-earmark cop. The White House referred comment to the Office of Management and Budget. “The EO is meant to ensure that congressional earmarks are subject to the scrutiny of the legislative process and an up or down vote by lawmakers. Any attempt to block the EO is tantamount to blocking transparency and accountability,” OMB spokeswoman Corinne Hirsch wrote in an e-mail.

The Defense authorization measure is the first bill to make it to the floor this year with a large number of the targeted spending provisions that have become a flashpoint of Congressional debate. After failing to secure a chamberwide moratorium on earmarks earlier this year, some conservative House Republicans are still urging their Conference to claim the high ground over Democrats by forgoing requests for projects.

But the decision by the Armed Services Committee to confront Bush on his earmark order had support from both parties.

Lara Battles, a spokeswoman for Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), said the panel is sticking up for its prerogatives. The committee, she said, “does not accept the validity of the president’s assertion that report language does not have weight. This committee and the Congress have examined national security issues very carefully. Congress has a right to weigh in on defense priorities, and report language is one place where this occurs.”

Josh Holly, spokesman for ranking member Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), said placing project requests in the report, as opposed to the bill text, gives the Pentagon the flexibility to reprogram funds.

Battles added that including the earmarks in the text of the bill could subject the measure to referrals to other committees.

At least one lawmaker is complaining about the move. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who was made aware of the provision Monday after his defense staffer stumbled across it, wrote a letter to his colleagues calling it “an unfortunate step backward in the earmark reform process.”

Flake is making a bid to strike the provision from the Defense authorization bill. At the Rules Committee today, he plans to offer an amendment to scotch that section of the bill, as well as four others, to kill specific earmarks.

“These guys are wedded to their pork,” Flake said. “That’s what this tells us.” He said including earmarks in the text of bills adds transparency and gives critics more procedural leverage to challenge them.

Bush announced the executive order in his State of the Union speech this year, arguing the projects have undercut public trust in government. In that address, he vowed to veto any spending bills that do not cut in half the number and cost of earmarks.

But many appropriations experts at the time scoffed at the declaration, noting that lawmakers would likely avoid a showdown with a lame-duck president in the fall by punting spending measures into next year. And the Congressional Research Service, in a February report, noted that all lawmakers have to do to sidestep the president’s order is include a line in every bill that states earmarks in an accompanying report carry the force of law.

Whether the defense measure will set a precedent for future authorization and spending bills is not clear. A spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee did not return a call for comment.

Steve Ellis, with the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, called the issue “the next front in the overall battle” over earmarks, with the Armed Services Committee “trying to get the president to sign off on eviscerating his executive order.”

“We’ve always supported having earmarks in the bills,” he said. “It’s cleaner, and it forces them to be publicly debated and amended. And it would have a downward pressure on the number of earmarks because it’s a whole heck of a lot harder to write legislative language than to just put it in a report.”

But Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces, said lawmakers have a constitutional right to direct spending. “Nobody in the executive branch is going to tell me what I should be doing,” he said. “If they want to have a say in the process, they can run for Congress.”