U.S. Congress

Update: Exposing Earmarks

It has been nearly two weeks since our first post on earmarks, and there are some interesting updates to report. The Sunlight Foundation has continued to employ new and innovative tools in its quest to expose earmarks, which often glide into law without legislative or executive review. Sunlight, which cosponsors Congresspedia with the Center for Media and Democracy, has teamed up with Human Events Online, Citizens Against Government Waste, Porkbusters.org, The Heritage Foundation, The Club for Growth, Townhall.com, and the Washington Examiner (and Mark Tapscott) to sift through the 1,867 earmarks which were inserted into the 2007 Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill (H.R. 5647) (an increase from only 51 last year). The collaborative effort has led to the development of a comprehensive database of the earmarks, tracking the money to the designated state and program.

The Do-Nothingest Congress

Nearly sixty years ago President Harry S. Truman infamously derided the 1947-1948 Congress as the "Do-Nothing Congress" for meeting for only 108 days. Well, Harry must be rolling in his grave, because the current U.S. House of Representatives (now on their annual August break) is projected to spend a mere 79 days in session in 2006.

This is largely due to their extended "district work periods" in which they go home and meet with constituents, campaign and fit in a few rounds of golf. While most Americans returned from their holiday vacation in the first week of January, the House took nearly the entire month off, commencing the session on January 31st. In February, the House met for only 47 hours, an average work week for many Americans. While the year still has over 4 months to go, the calendar leaves a maximum of only 16 additional days for the House to complete its business. Meanwhile, the Senate is also projected to have a light workload this year, devoting only 125 days to legislative business, a 34-day drop from 2005.

As part of Congresspedia's continuing development of articles on how Congress works, we've looked back at the last dozen years of congressional calendars, which are set by the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader. You can see the results at our new article on congressional calendars, which includes this interesting chart:

Harnessing the web to expose earmarks

Earmarks are the lifeblood of Washington, providing an avenue for Congress to bypass the executive branch and designate specific blocks of money to go to specific programs or contractors. They are also, as Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) calls them, the "currency of corruption." Earmarks given to defense contractors in exchange for bribes were what brought down now-former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and are creating a mess of trouble for Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) and several other members of Congress.

Beyond corruption, earmarks often take the form of "pork," the taxpayer-funded largess that members of Congress snag to show their constituents how effective they are at bringing home the bacon (a major plank in the primary platform of Sen. Joe Lieberman).

In short, earmarks often aggravate a lot of people of varied political bents, from deficit hawks to citizen muckrakers. However, finding out where the earmarks are actually going has been a historically difficult task—until now.

The Sunlight Foundation, which co-operates Congresspedia with the Center for Media and Democracy, has just developed a group of fancy tools that slice and dice the 2007 appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education to show you who exactly is getting the 1,800 earmarks in that bill. They are enlisting citizen journalists to help them expose the outrageous and the scurrilous in the bill.

Congress vs. The President

About two weeks ago, on July 26, 2006, the American Bar Association issued a report condemning President Bush's use of "signing statements." These statements are essentially a "P.S." written underneath his signature on a piece of legislation that states how he interprets and intends to enforce the law. (This is part of the Unitary Executive Theory.)

The ABA is not happy about this. From the press release for the report:

"Presidential signing statements that assert President Bush’s authority to disregard or decline to enforce laws adopted by Congress undermine the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers... To address these concerns, the task force urges Congress to adopt legislation enabling its members to seek court review of signing statements that assert the President’s right to ignore or not enforce laws passed by Congress, and urges the President to veto bills he feels are not constitutional."

The ABA asked and it shall receive: two days later Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) filed a bill that would allow the House or Senate to file a lawsuit to have the Supreme Court rule on the constitutionality of signing statements.

Here's where Congresspedia comes in. I called Sen. Specter's office and confirmed that while the bill has been referred to Specter's Senate Judiciary Committee, there has yet to be a hearing and no other Senators have signed up to be cosponsors. So, where do members of the Senate stand on Specter's bill? Citizen journalists, help us find out.

The Colbert Report: Sense of Humor Required

The morning shows and cable news outlets have been all over Steven Colbert's July 20 interview with Rep. Bob Wexler (D-Fla.) on the Colbert Report. We at Congresspedia think that Colbert's interviews are frequently hilarious and have created indexes of links to videos of the interviews that he and Jon Stewart have done with members of Congress. However, as we state at the top of the index pages, "It should be noted that the interviews often veer into pure comedy and should not be taken as on-the-record comments." So, when Colbert gets Rep. Wexler to discuss subjects like prostitutes and cocaine, we suggest you take Colbert's advice and recognize that, hey, "he's got a sense of humor."

We've now expanded our video link lists to include non-interview segments on both the Daily Show and the Colbert Report that pertain to Congress. Click through the above links to see them or read the rest of this blog entry for the list of interviews.

Business Lobbies Hard for India's Nuclear Exemption

Robert Hoffman, a lobbyist for Oracle, describes the preliminary Congressional vote to exempt India from a ban on nuclear technology sales as "a coming-out party of sorts for the India lobby." The U.S. Atomic Energy Act bans nuclear sales to countries, such as India, that have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Last month, both House and Senate committees gave in-principle support to the agreement negotiated between U.S. President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.



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