Update: Exposing Earmarks

It looks like it's close to endgame for earmark reform this Congressional session. Earmarks, the specific allocations of money to certain programs or organizations by Congress, has been a hot topic in Washington this year ever since the resignation of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.). The Duke, it seems, had been steering money through earmarks to defense contractors in exchange for bribes. While some members of Congress proposed various campaign finance and ethics reforms in the scandal's wake, a band of conservative House Republicans decided instead to go after the secretive earmark process itself.

The upshot of the effort was, ironically, the Senate Coburn-Obama-McCain-Carper bill (S.2590) to create a public database of all government spending. After "secret holds" kept it from the floor for over a month, the bill was finally considered in the Senate, where it passed by a voice vote. The House followed with its own passage one week later, and the legislation is now on President Bush's desk, where the White House has indicated he will sign it.

On paper, the bill contains a tougher transparency standard than similar legislation passed by the House in June. That bill, sponsored by House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and House Committee on Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), would create a searchable database of all government grants; S.2590, however, would expand the database to include both grants and government contracts.

The true blow to the secrecy of the earmark process, however, came a few days after the passage of the database bill, when the House approved a rules change sponsored by Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.). Dreier's proposal requires all earmarks and their respective sponsors to be identified. The change, which was originally part of a broader ethics reform bill (H.R. 4975) passed in May, was agreed to after it became clear that the House and Senate could not reach an agreement on a broader bill.

The House rules change, in effect only through the current Congress (which is scheduled to adjourn in 16 days), is considered by many to be too weak. Among the unsatisfied are Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who sought to strengthen it by proposing an amendment which would ban earmarks to any organization employing a spouse, family member, or former employee of the sponsor. The amendment, however, was never considered by the floor.

Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) also felt as though the change was inadequate and introduced a separate measure (H.R. 1008). His would require not only the identification of earmarks and their sponsors, but also a statement expressing both the earmark's purpose and whether or not the member sponsoring it has a financial interest in securing it. In addition, it would require that all earmarks be made public through the applicable committee’s website at least 48 hours prior to the release of a conference report on the bill which includes it. Despite having 17 co-sponsors, Moore’s measure was referred to the Rules Committee and also not considered by the floor.

The Senate is also considering an internal rules change regarding earmarks, but a senior leadership aide has said that this will only be considered if Senate Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Ranking Member Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) can propose a measure that will easily pass the chamber.

To read more about specific earmark reform legislation considered by the House and Senate this year, check out Congresspedia’s great page on the subject.