This weekend, House Republicans held their annual three-day retreat to the historic Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. Earmark reform was a hot topic at the retreat, with young Turks challenging the old bulls to take bold action for reform, as Dana Chasin wrote at OMB Watch’s blog. Younger conservatives pushed for a moratorium on GOP earmarks through the rest of 2008 in hope of showing voters Republicans are serious about fiscal responsibility. Ultimately, the bulls won.
They did attempt to hang some window dressing on the decision by sending a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling on her to establish a bipartisan panel to work on reducing pork-barrel spending. And they took four other steps: pledging to not fund projects named after themselves (Ouch! That must hurt.), promising not to "airdrop" earmarks into bills, agreeing not to send funds to "front" organizations and pass-through groups, and requiring members to place rationales for earmarks in the Congressional Record.
Rep. Jeff Flake, one of the most vocal of the Turks, termed the decision a missed opportunity. "Had we gone for a moratorium…in the end [Democrats] would have had to follow our lead," as Flake was quoted by The Hill. Ben Pershing, writing at The Washington Post‘s "Capitol Briefing" blog, said that "this was (the House Republican’s) first – and best – chance to do something "revolutionary," and they didn’t. Dana termed the GOP proposals "stillborn, inane non-starters and hilarious…Much ado about nothing. In short, tastes great, less filling," Dana writes. "Let disclosure be a porkbusting disinfectant." Amen to that.
Pershing highlights another bump in the road for Republicans trying to brand the party as a champion of reform. The House GOP Greenbrier retreat was organized and partially funded by the Congressional Institute, a non-profit run and bankrolled by corporate lobbyists. The organization is one of the top sponsors of congressional travel between January 2000 and June 2005, spending more than $830,000 on almost 1,000 trips, according to a 2006 Center for Public Integrity study. The Public Governance Institute is the Congressional Institute’s sister group that is markedly more bipartisan and caters to both sides of the aisle. It spent more than $135,000 on about 120 congressional trips, according to the Center’s analysis. Corporations that finance the institute include Alria, Lockheed Martin, Merck and Verizon, each of which contributes $25,000 annually according to the Center’s study. "Thirteen of the 15 members of its board of directors are registered Washington lobbyists," according to the Center, "some representing the companies that finance the organization." Pershing made note that the GOP debate over earmarks and influence peddling was "occurring at an event at least partially funded by lobbyists," adding that he would leave it to his "wise readers to decide whether that constitutes irony."