House Republican leaders promise that even if lobby reform stalls – as it has – they will do something to rein in earmarks when they return to Capitol Hill next month.
The reason: There's too much flak over lawmakers who are cashing in on earmarks – legally, as campaign contributions; illegally, as bribes. Even good projects look bad when they're muscled into spending bills late in the process, anonymously, and with no competition, debate, or chance to delete them.
Despite ongoing corruption scandals, many members still find pet projects to be a political asset. Come time to craft a stump speech, incumbents can point to that new museum, hospital wing, or highway connector as proof that they are making a difference in Washington.
As a result, promised reforms don't get off the ground. Earmark reform is included in both House and Senate lobby bills, but negotiations over a final version have gridlocked. One bipartisan proposal to put all government spending, including earmarks and contracts, onto a public database was blocked this month by a senator, who is allowed by Senate rules to remain anonymous.
But a new network of think tanks, advocacy groups, and bloggers is taking up the cause. The aim: To shine enough light on the process to turn earmarks into a net political liability.
"With earmarks, you're short-circuiting the kind of open and robust debate you need on what our priorities should be ... and a system with some kind of vetting and processing," says Bill Allison, senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a group founded in January on former Justice Brandeis's statement that "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."
The process of earmarking preempts the question: "Is there someone else out there who could do the whole thing better?" he adds.
Last week, the Sunlight Foundation, a coalition of interest groups opposed to earmarks, released a spreadsheet of 1,811 earmarks pending in the fiscal year 2007 Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations bill. If you knew where to look, you could find a list of earmarks on a government website. But it leaves out what reformers say is the key fact about any earmark: who sponsored it.
"Once you know who the member is, you can start asking questions such as: Is there a direct financial connection with a member of the board of directors who is a [campaign] donor? How was this hospital or training program chosen over another? Sometimes it's because it's the best program; sometimes it's because there's a lobbyist who is paid," says Zephyr Teachout, national director of the Sunlight Foundation. "We hope to turn K Street upside down."
Activists run across the political spectrum, including Ms. Teachout, who directed Howard Dean's online campaign, and conservative-leaning organizations, such as the Club for Growth, Human Events Online, the National Taxpayers Union, and the Heritage Foundation. Other participants include the Washington Examiner, the blog Porkbusters.org, and Citizens Against Government Waste, a public-interest group.
Since the Senate recessed before a vote on this bill, this month is a rare opportunity for members and the public to scrutinize earmarks. The coalition says that interest is already building on other blogs, and they expect to produce a report in a few weeks – probably in time for a Senate debate on the bill.
"This is not just for [political] obsessives," says Teachout. "It's for someone who spent time on their local school board and wants to get involved in national politics and has three hours a week or the guy who has 10 minutes. We're providing a service for the tens of thousands of citizens who really care about this and giving them tools to be more powerful in getting Congress to make some changes."
In a few cases, such as $3 million for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York, the earmark's sponsor is obvious. (Representative Rangel of New York is the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.) But the majority of earmarks are anonymous and added late in the process. Even members don't know earmark sponsors.
Last year, Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Labor, Health and Human Services panel of the Senate Appropriations Committee, blocked nearly all earmarks in the FY 2006 appropriations bill, citing the emergency needs caused by hurricane Katrina.
When Republicans took over the House in 1995, there were five earmarks in the Labor, Health and Human Services bill, amounting to $2.4 million. By FY 2005, the number of earmarks attached to this bill had soared to 3,014 or $1.18 billion.
But this year, the committee is proposing 1,811 earmarks. Many more are often added when House and Senate conferees meet on a final version of spending bills. In a year when many spending bills are rolled into one omnibus spending bill – as is expected after elections this fall – earmarks typically soar.
Currently, the House's lobby reform bill requires disclosure of the names of lawmakers requesting earmarks and creates a process to challenge individual earmarks on the floor.
Should negotiations between the House and Senate over lobby reform remain in limbo, House Republicans say they will "immediately adopt and implement a comprehensive earmark reform rules change."
The White House is also pushing for Senate adoption of a line item veto, which passed the House June 22. "It is a way to cut out unnecessary and wasteful spending," says Rob Portman, Office of Management and Budget director, who says he is "still guardedly optimistic" that the bill can pass the Senate.
Senate reformers say the key to passing these measures is a more public discussion of the cost of earmarks. "We want to get the public more educated," says John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma. "If they're educated, they will be profoundly angry and dedicated to electing people who will change the rules of the game."