Earmarks Pass by the Thousands; Foes Fume

Posted September 24, 2008 at 6:35pm

With the focus on the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, appropriators quietly executed an end run around challenges to the thousands of earmarks slipped in the must-pass, year-end spending bill.

The continuing resolution passed the House, 370-58, on Wednesday without a single challenge to the thousands of earmarks worth billions of dollars, infuriating government watchdogs and fiscal hawks who thought changes made this Congress would stem the earmark tide.

The bill’s passage showed that the allure of earmarks remains strong, and appropriators were able to sidestep pesky and often embarrassing floor amendments from the likes of Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) threatening individual projects.

President Bush had threatened to veto bills that didn’t reduce earmarks by half but caved in negotiations with lawmakers, and Republican leaders in both chambers are going along, too.

The budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense counted 2,322 earmarks worth $6.6 billion in the spending package, which includes the Defense, Homeland Security and military construction-Veterans Affairs bills.

“This is the biggest airdrop we’ve seen since Pearl Harbor,” quipped Steve Ellis, a vice president with the group.

He said the distraction of the bailout was allowing the funding measure to “slip through the Capitol like a greased pig. Obviously, this money was going to get spent, but you’d just much rather have it done completely transparently and allowing the process to work, rather than cramming through in the waning days of the fiscal year.”

Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, was less generous. She called the bill “a crime against taxpayers” and “an outrageous demonstration of failed leadership.”

“I don’t know why they’re not more embarrassed,” she said.

But the package, and the process used to approve it, worked in favor of some lawmakers — namely appropriators. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a panel member, said the crisis in the financial markets was easing the bill’s path to passage.

“Sometimes on Appropriations, you’ve got to have your package ready to move, so when the train leaves the station, you can be on board,” he said. “There was a major distraction this week, and what should’ve been center stage is not even a footnote. The package won’t get the scrutiny it would’ve gotten. It’s good news for people who like the package.”

Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense ranking member Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) called the abbreviated process “terrible” but said he’s happy to get his earmarks.

“A lot of these projects are related to the national defense needs,” he said. “These things are going to be done somewhere, so my attitude is, why not in my district?”

Young said he didn’t think a desire to shelter earmarks had anything to do with the short-circuiting of the appropriations process this year, blaming instead the desire of Democratic leaders to avoid votes on offshore drilling.

Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) defended the bill, noting that unlike under Republican rule, at least the public will know who requested which earmark.

“I call that reform even if the gentleman doesn’t care to admit it,” Obey said in a reference to Flake on the House floor. Disclosure letters for the Defense bill were posted on the committee’s Web site a day before the bill came up for a vote, prompting complaints from watchdog groups that they had little time to match up earmarks with their sponsors.

Obey said he originally did not plan on including the Defense bill, or its earmarks, until he received requests from Republicans and Defense Secretary Robert Gates urging him to do so.

Earmark critics fumed.

“How in the world can anyone stand up today and say we kept our promises in terms of transparency?” Flake asked.

Flake claimed most of the earmarks were doled out to appropriators and party leaders, undercutting claims that earmarks are about lawmakers knowing better than bureaucrats how to spend money in their districts.

“We’re seeing a spoils system, and it’s simply not right,” he said. “We cannot continue to do business this way.”

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) bemoaned the air-dropping of thousands of earmarks but did not stand in the way of the package, noting that it would not continue an oil drilling moratorium and would fund the government.

“There are billions of dollars of earmarks here that no one’s ever seen. No one knows what they are,” he said, adding that the process is “broken.”

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said he thought the issue would help elect Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who has pledged to veto bills with earmarks. But Pence acknowledged that Republicans are part of the problem.

“We don’t have a consensus in the Republican Conference today, and today’s vote confirms that, but there is a consensus among the American people, and they will have their say in November,” he said.

As a result of the continuing resolution, nine domestic spending bills never even made it to the House floor.

Obey blamed that on Bush’s threat to veto bills that contained more domestic spending than he proposed. He said Democrats were trying to prevent cuts in cancer research, education and other programs that Bush sought.

“I make no apology making one last stand to invest $14 billion in our people here at home at the same time we’re being asked to spend 50 times that to bail out Wall Street for its mistakes,” Obey said.

But Young, a former chairman, said the independence of the committee is at risk given the procedural sclerosis. “We’re not only on life support, but somebody is standing on our tube,” he said.

Appropriations ranking member Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) bemoaned the failure to even bring up bills in committee.

“How can we possibly have this process go forward without having at least one public hearing?” he asked.

Lewis said the committee and the institution suffered. “Drilling was one of the main elements, but there is little doubt that there is a major struggle going on on the other side about whether appropriations really ought to be decided in the committee room or in some other corner room.”