Congressional Democrats announce earmark reforms
Joe Byrne
Published: Wednesday March 11, 2009

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After this week's media coverage of the heavily earmarked omnibus spending bill, leading congressional Democrats and the Appropriations Committee triumphantly announced two earmark reform recommendations this morning. President Obama, who helped write the committee's recommendations, admitted that the $410 billion spending bill was imperfect but insisted that “important progress” was being made.

The reforms were published today in a joint release from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. The Democrat-led initiative has two facets, both focusing on increasing the power of the executive branch. The first part of the reform specified a review by an “appropriate executive branch agency.” A review, according to the document, will ensure that “the earmark is eligible to receive funds and meets goals established in law.” The second part of the recommendation is aimed at cutting down for-profit earmarks; earmarks directed towards for-profit entities will have to undergo a “competitive bidding process” in order to be a part of legislation. The bidding process will also be run by the executive branch.

If these recommendations are enacted by Congress, this will be the third stage of reforms aimed at fixing the earmark problem. In January 2007, the House of Representatives enacted a set of rules concerning earmark ownership and fiscal interest, as well as a 1-year earmarking moratorium. And starting with fiscal year 2010, new earmarks come with a homework assignment for their owner; all Members’ requests for earmarks are to be publicly disclosed on their website with an explanation of why it is an appropriate use of taxpayer money. The new fiscal year will also bring a permanent earmark 'budget'. No more than 1% of the total discretionary budget will be used for congressional district's pet projects.

Nancy Pelosi happily claimed all credit for earmark reforms for the Democratic party in her statement accompanying the recommendations. “Since taking control of Congress in January 2007, Democrats reformed an earmark process that had grown out of control, spent too much money, fostered corruption, and offered no accountability to the American taxpayer. Today, we are announcing additional earmark reform measures that build upon the substantial accountability and reform the New Direction Congress instituted and provide for competition and an additional level of executive review. We will ensure accountability for Congressional earmarks at every step of the process,” Pelosi said.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent watchdog organization, has argued that widespread earmarking is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics. According to the organization, the 1970 Defense Appropriations Bill had a dozen earmarks; the 1980 bill had 62; and by 2005, the defense bill included 2,671. This year's spending bill included 8500 earmarks. Reforms by congressional Democrats, especially the idea of a 1% earmark budget, accept earmarks as an inevitable part of legislation. Total discretionary spending was at approximately $1 trillion last year; a 1% earmark cap would allow for an annual minimum of around $10 billion.

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