– After more than 20 hours of debate – or gridlock – the US House of Representatives had only made it to page 2 of a 76-page fiscal year 2008 Homeland Security spending bill.
That's why Democratic and Republican leaders cut a deal, announced Thursday morning, to end the impasse – and raise the standards of transparency and accountability in the House in practice, as well as on paper. The deal restores a requirement to disclose all member-sponsored projects, including the right to challenge such earmarks on the floor of the House.
The floor fight wasn't over how to secure US ports, protect borders, or ensure that first responders could talk to each other in a crisis – typical grist for a homeland security debate. It was over why Democrats hadn't listed earmarks in the bill, as they had promised when they took control of the House in January.
For Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, the issue came down to priorities. With 34,000 earmarks, it would have taken weeks for staff to "wade through" all the member requests, including eliminating duplicates and reviewing and reworking projects so that they are eligible.
"We chose to do substance over worrying about pork," he said, as the clock ticked toward 1 a.m. Tuesday.
Instead of fussing over "people's boodle," the committee held 224 oversight hearings to vet the Bush administration's spending requests, he said. When Republicans controlled the panel in 2006, they held only 117, he added.
But Republicans weren't backing down. Conceding their own past abuses – including members now doing prison time over corruption involving earmarks – GOP members insisted on holding Democrats to the standards they had previously announced.
"Earmarks should be open to public vetting, full debate, and floor challenge," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, who has led a crusade against earmarks, often against members of his own party.
"We are legislators; we are not potted plants here. To be relegated to just writing a letter and asking for a response is simply not sufficient," he added.
Toward 2 a.m., Chairman Obey challenged Mr. Flake: "The gentleman has offered a lot of motions in the past two years to strike earmarks. Could I ask him how many of them have been successful?"
"Not one," Flake responded. "I came to the floor 39 times and was beaten like a rented mule every time."
But the level of public interest and scrutiny over earmarks has increased since those votes, he said, in an interview. Obey "misjudged the way this is viewed outside the Beltway."
On Monday, Obey announced a revision of committee policy on earmarks: Instead of including member projects, identified by name in spending bills, earmarks would be fully disclosed before the August recess – after all House votes on spending bills, but before the final appropriations are worked out in a conference with the Senate. Lawmakers objecting to any earmark could send a letter to the committee challenging the project.
The move set off protests from editorial boards to accountability websites in the blogosphere. Within hours of the Obey announcement, more than 770 people volunteered to help Congress vet earmarks this cycle on the porkbusters.org website.
"The question is whether Congress is going to live up to the reforms they promised or create conditions which we know corrupt things: earmarks decided behind closed doors and an opaque process," says Bill Allison, of the Sunlight Foundation. "There's no reason not to make the requests public now."
By the terms of the new deal announced Thursday morning, earmark disclosure rules will not apply to the two spending bills currently on the House floor, Homeland Security and Military Quality of Life. But all 10 remaining FY 2008 spending bills will be subject to the new rule.
Republicans say that they will continue to challenge spending levels in pending appropriations bills – and sustain any presidential veto of spending bills that exceed budget limits – but will call off obstructionist tactics over earmarks. In addition, House Republican leader John Boehner says he will try to force a House vote on a reform that allows members to challenge earmarks in authorizing and tax bills, as well as spending bills.
"Democratic leaders finally surrendered to our demands, because supporting secret earmarks in appropriations bills is indefensible and the American people won't stand for it," said Mr. Boehner, in a statement.
Some Congress watchers defend Obey's role in the process and say that Republicans badly abused earmarks in their own years in power.
"Obey had legitimate reasons for proposing what he proposed in terms of delaying the earmarks, because Democrats are just determined to pass the appropriations bills before the beginning of the fiscal year," says Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But the deal is a reasonable one. The process has gotten out of hand, been abused, and needed to be reined in," he adds.