Earmark Reform Faltering


Members of the House Appropriations Committee appear to be balking at the prospect of change in House rules that would attach the names of lawmakers to the earmarks they’ve inserted into spending bills. As the Times article notes, this rather modest change would apply only to the House (not the Senate), and would exempt defense earmarks (where the real money is) from scrutiny. I’ve noted before that there are ways around the disclosure provisions proposed in the rules change, which potentially could make it harder to identify who’s getting earmarks, because lawmakers could use obscure descriptions–any company incorporated in Harrison, N.Y., in 1923–to avoid the rule’s requirement that they take credit for their earmarks. Still, with all it’s limitations, this measure would shine a little light on spending bills already drafted but not yet passed–even a modest disclosure measure is better than none.

The Hill reports the Rep. Jerry Lewis, the chairman of Appropriations, has decided to make the perfect the enemy of the good-so-far-as-it-goes:

Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) huddled with his panel yesterday afternoon but emerged with no firm panel-wide plan to oppose the earmark-reform resolution. Many GOP appropriators believe the resolution singles out their committee’s product while applying a narrow definition of tax and authorizing earmarks.

“We are attempting to communicate with leadership that this committee feels very strongly that earmark reform is a priority, but it should apply to everybody,” Lewis said after the meeting. “We feel very strongly that… the broad-based membership should be involved in it, not just the Appropriations Committee.”

For what it’s worth, his argument has merit. Earmarks aren’t the only means for showering a special interest with special attention; tax breaks and regulatory relief can–and are–secretly doled out to those with close ties to members of Congress. But if he were sincere, wouldn’t Lewis support the earmark rules change as a fisrt step toward greater transparency in Congress? Wouldn’t he have more moral authority on tying the names of lawmakers to tax breaks, for example, if he’d been behind the reform of earmark rules?

Prof. Glenn Reynolds has more on this, including a list of appropriators to contact. One thing this latest episode does illustrate is that, important as it is for getting a sense of how government is spending our money, S. 2590, the Coburn-Obama federal contracting and grantmaking disclosure bill, really wasn’t an earmark reform measure. While the spending practices of federal agencies will be available online–including information on the number of no-bid and closed-bid contracts they award–Congress’s ability to secretly make no-bid awards through the earmarking process will be unaffected. As is often the case, Congress reforms, not Sen. You and Rep. Me, but the federal bureaucrat behind the tree. (Apologies to Russell Long…)