House GOP Drafting Earmark Reform for All

Posted February 6, 2009 at 6:03pm

Looking to avoid another intraparty battle over earmarks, a group of House Republicans is drafting a set of reforms that they hope will appease both those who favor the practice and those who abhor it.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) has led a 10-Member Earmark Reform Committee through several meetings and listening sessions over the past three months. The goal: to ensure the group’s recommendations — to be presented to the larger GOP Conference later this month — will find favor with Members on all sides of the earmark debate.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) established the GOP earmark committee in December, hoping Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) would come aboard and appoint Democratic Members to the effort. So far, Pelosi, who consistently maintains that Democrats already have implemented earmark reforms of their own, has yet to entertain Boehner’s invitation.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said Republicans, for their part, are making progress toward their goal of bringing Members together on the contentious issue.

“We are trying to find a position that the whole Conference can embrace that’s real reform,” he said.

McMorris Rodgers said that if the end product is ultimately adopted by the Conference, it will serve as the “gold standard” by which the Members measure their earmark requests in the future.

While not speaking specifically to what the group plans to recommend, she said they have sought to build on suggestions that Republicans sent to Pelosi in January 2008.

Those proposals — which included bans on “monuments to me” or earmarks named after a sitting Member, amendments inserted after a bill is voted out of committee and several provisions aimed at increased transparency in the process — were rejected by Democrats, who saw the suggestions as a political ploy.

McMorris Rodgers said this year’s approach is different. Republicans are now focusing as much on what’s right about earmark spending as what’s wrong with it.

“Members know their districts better than Washington bureaucrats,” she said.

But McMorris Rodgers also said the abuse of earmark spending is a concern. Republicans recognize the system is broken, and stricter enforcement mechanisms and transparency are needed.

“We believe it’s important to have transparency and oversight in earmarks,” she said. “We continue to battle this impression that this process is corrupted.”

Republicans said the decision to actively lead by example will illustrate their commitment to fiscal responsibility.

“Republicans are committed to standing on the side of taxpayers and against wasteful government spending,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “The earmark reform commission is an important part of that effort. Obviously, we wish the majority would join us, instead of continuing to embrace the big-spending politics of the past.”

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), a member of the Appropriations Committee who co-authored a proposal for a temporary moratorium on earmarks in 2008, said abuse of the process coupled with the constitutional right to have a say over the federal budget makes the issue particularly complicated.

“There is a constant conflict if you try to eliminate earmarks,” Wamp said. “It’s one of the most difficult issues for Congress to address for either party.”

Internal disagreements over how to best handle earmark reform have been bubbling for some time, but they came to a head at the Republican retreat last year as leaders struggled to find ways to shed the party’s tarnished reputation that sent them into the minority in 2006.

At the meeting, the lack of a party position on earmark spending pitted then-Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) against Boehner, who, in the face of a Member revolt, was forced to dial back on an initial proposal to implement a yearlong, intraparty earmark moratorium.

The result was a watered-down challenge to Democratic leaders to join them in abstaining from earmarking until the process could be reformed.

Democrats rejected the request, however, voting down a GOP-led earmark proposal in February 2008. Still, the internal Republican friction continued well into the spring as Hensarling and members of the RSC called on House Republicans to pledge to abstain from the practice until “real reform” was implemented.