Facing unprecedented public scrutiny and an election this fall, Congress is under the gun to tighten the rules on the time-honored lawmaker practice of slipping pet projects into legislation – and it has about 30 days left to get the job done.
Both House and Senate leaders pledge to change the rules on lawmakers' earmarks this month, before Congress breaks for the midterm election. But this week, sticking points emerged, complicating their pledge to push the changes through.
In the House, leaders Wednesday postponed a vote on rule changes, as they grapple with how to extend reforms to all bills, not just spending bills.
In the Senate, new obstacles are surfacing to a bill that would create an easily searchable – and public – database of all government contracts, grants, and earmarks.
If passed, information now requiring months of research and Freedom of Information Act requests could be acquired with the click of a mouse.
Together, the reforms would mark a sea change in the way Congress does business, especially in the Senate, where project add-ons are seldom challenged before a vote – and where a senator's "secret hold" on a bill is enough to derail it quietly.
And that's the rub. When an anonymous senator last month slapped a secret hold on a popular bipartisan bill to publish earmarks, contracts, and grants, public-interest groups mobilized to "out" the source, who turned out to be Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska. Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia confirms he also once put a hold on the bill, but withdrew it.
All clear? Not quite. Early this week, at least two other secret holds surfaced on the bill. Groups rallying in Washington on Wednesday called on Senate majority leader Bill Frist to sweep aside the holds – a senatorial courtesy, not a rule – and move the bill to the floor.
"The time for secret holds and keeping taxpayers in the dark is long over. We appreciate Senator Frist committing to bring this bill to the Senate floor for the up-or-down vote it deserves, and we hope he will announce a specific date for the vote as soon as possible," said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, which supports earmark reform.
But advocates say there is still enough time and public momentum to move reforms that will make a difference through Congress this session.
"I don't think senators realized that people cared so much about transparency and responsiveness," says Zephyr Teachout, national director of the Sunlight Foundation, a broad-based coalition of groups that mobilized bloggers to identify the source of secret holds.
Public support for change should be credited to former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California, whose vast defense earmark-for-bribe scam – some earning his co-conspirators profit margins in excess of 800 percent – stunned many colleagues and sent him to prison. It also raised the profile on the hidden process of securing funds for member projects and mobilized public-interest groups and bloggers to shine a bright light both on earmarking and moves to reform the process.
Even if negotiations fail to produce comprehensive lobby reform, House and Senate leaders say they will change the rules of both bodies to require disclosure of all member projects and their sponsors.
"One way or another, we will address this issue," said House majority leader John Boehner, as Congress resumed work Tuesday. "It's important to use taxpayers' resources wisely – and important [that] we move forward on reform."
Groups supporting earmark reform cross the political spectrum, from Democrat Howard Dean and those who helped build his Web-based 2004 presidential run to the American Conservative Union and the Eagle Forum.
"There's a lot written on the fact that nothing can get done in the last month before a midterm [election]. But there are issues where people on the far left and far right and the middle agree, and this is one of those issues. And that gives me hope," says Ed Frank, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity, which is sponsoring a nationwide tour to end earmarks.
In addition, sponsors of the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act say public pressure is on their side to expose secret holds and move the bill to the floor.
"This now has a very good chance of passing," says John Hart, a spokesman for sponsoring Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma. Other lead sponsors include Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, and Thomas Carper (D) of Delaware.
At the same time, independent groups are moving ahead with plans to make more information about earmarks available to the public. Last month, the Sunlight Foundation – along with Citizens against Government Waste, the Club for Growth, the Heritage Foundation, Human Events Online, the National Taxpayers Union, the blog Porkbusters.com, and others – launched an interactive database of more than 1,800 earmarks in the House version of the fiscal year 2007 spending bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. OMB Watch, another public-interest group, is in the process of putting information on federal grants and contracts online in a searchable form.
Despite continued efforts by a few senators to bury the bill, reforms say they have a big asset: public pressure.
"There are flashpoints in terms of public consciousness and earmarks are one of them," says Paul Keil, a reporter for TPMmuckraker.com, which helped identify secret holds on the Senate bill. "Duke Cunningham had a lot to do with it, as did the 'Bridge to Nowhere,' " an earmark sponsored by Senator Stevens.