Saturday, April 15, 2006

Happy Easter

Luke 24: 1-53

The American Pyramids

As one who's spent a fair amount of time in Mexico, the recent discovery of a previously unknown Teotihuacan pyramid fascinates me.

Mexico is home to a fascinating pre-Columbian series of civilizations - from the Toltecs, to the Teotihuacanas, to the Mayans and Incas in the southern part of the country, and the Aztecs. The Aztecs - who offer a certain fascination because of their warlike nature and human sacrifice - ruled Mexico for a very short time, really. Their island capitol of Tenochtitlan was founded in 1215, and their rule was over by the early 1500s. The Toltecs, Teotihuacanas, and others lasted much longer.

The city of Teotihuacan is located about an hour's drive Northeast of Mexico City, and if you've never been, it's well worth a trip. While only a 2 mile stretch of the former city center survives, the hike through it can be physically demanding, provided you choose to climb the pyramids. This can be especially so for American tourists, most of whom will take a while to acclimate to the elevation (somewhere north of 5,000 feet). At its peak population, Teotihuacan is believed to have been the sixth largest city in the world - with a population of perhaps 150,000. You'll find some good pictures here.

The Teotihuacanas were the cultural center of middle america in the first few centuries after the death of Christ. Their trade linked the Mexican coasts, and the region down to South America. The city featured settlements of traders from places like Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico and Monte Alban (near Oaxaca) in the South. The city was destroyed by fire and abandoned somewhere around 800 AD, and no one really knows why. There are clear indications of fire, but there is no real agreement as to the cause - war, or something else. The other thing you notice when visiting is that the area is extremely dry; there are only two small streams that cut through the area. It couldn't have been so dry two thousand years ago.

We know very little about the people who built the city. The name Teotihuacan in fact, was given by the Aztecs, who considered it a very holy place. In the Aztec language - Nahuatl - Teotihuacan means 'place where men go to become gods.'

The discovery of this new pyramid interests me because there was previously no indication that the Teotihuacanas built pyramids outside their own city. And there was nothing of significance in Mexico City at the time - just a large shallow lake, presumably with small fishing villages on the shore, and perhaps at the island center. If I understand the maps correctly, it appears that this pyramid may have been on the central island, where the Aztecs later built the city of Tenochtitlan. This might indicate more of a direct link between the two cultures - although they're separated in time by 400 years.

I suppose I find all this fascinating because no one seems to know about it - at least in the States. We spend plenty of time studying Egypt, Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, and other European history, but know almost nothing about the pyramid builders and empires of this continent. It's worth reading about.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Immigration Endgame

Fred Barnes writes about a coming Republican victory on immigration. He says that polling clearly shows strong support for 'earned citizenship' for illegal immigrants in the US, causing Republican leaders to stand firmly with the President for a comprehensive bill. He says that latino activists were sufficiently angry with Senate Democrats for blocking the Senate's comprehensive bill before the Easter recess, that they are now compelled to work honestly for the compromise they claim they want.

Under this scenario, when Congress comes back to Washington the week of April 24, Senate Democrats will join with a majority of Republicans to pass a bill that includes border enforcement and an earned legalization program. The House has already passed an enforcement only bill (search for "HR 4437" here). The two bills will be merged by a conference committee, and Republican leaders will make sure the bill includes earned legalization. Then that consensus product will be passed by both Houses, and sent to the President for signature.

Assuming Senate Democrats 'play ball,' the big question is: can the bill pass the House? Thirty-six House Democrats voted for the enforcement-only bill, and more might join a bill that includes earned legalization. Only 17 Republicans voted against HR 4437, but how many more will join them if the bill contains an amnesty? Tom Tancredo (R-CO) claims to have more than 20 Republicans who are dead-set against such a bill. How many will actually vote 'no' on a top issue against their leadership and their President?

As I have noted before, standard operating procedure for House Republicans is that they do not vote on controversial measures that require Democratic support to pass. This will clearly be one of those situations. I bet Majority Whip Roy Blunt is working hard to figure out where the votes are, in case it comes to that.

I'll stick with my prediction that House Republicans won't do it, and that there will not be an immigration bill this year.

Misdirection on Drug Penalties for College Students

Slate's Ryan Grim writes here about a provision of federal law that make students convicted of selling or possessing controlled substances ineligible for federal financial aid. Grim makes it sound as if the provision was snuck into law somehow, saying:

In 1998, Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., an advocate of stringent drug laws, slipped into a House bill an amendment denying federal financial aid for college to anyone who had been convicted of either selling or possessing drugs. No congressional committee voted on the amendment. But it passed as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, first enacted in 1965 to create federal financial aid for college students.

Whether you like the provision or not, it pretty clearly enjoyed strong support in Congress at the time. House Democrats enthusiastically joined Republicans in support of the procedural measure that prevented a vote on Souder's provision. When Souder offered an amendment to make the provision more lenient, it was agreed to on a voice vote, without any concern raised about whether the provision was still too harsh. The overall bill passed the House by a vote of 414-4.

All of this tells you that if the provision was never even voted on, it was only because support was effectively unanimous, not because it got snuck through the process, or because debate was stifled.

What the Students Want

Cyrille de Lasteyrie explains what the French students want: right not to be fired, company car, retirement at 30... the usual.

Bonjour America.

Harry Reid's Falling Approval Rating

National Journal reports that a Mason-Dixon poll shows that Harry Reid's approval rating in Nevada has dropped 10 points since 2004. This isn't especially surprising; it's the same thing that happened to Tom Daschle. When a Democratic Senator in a conservative state becomes the lead spokesman for his party, it makes it much tougher to appear reasonable and moderate, with a focus on constituents.

Nevada. Senate Minority Leader Reid's popularity in his home state has declined since his elevation to his leadership post following the 2004 elections, according to a survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. Those in Nevada who view him favorably slipped 10 points since 2004, while those who view Reid unfavorably rose by 14 points. The poll found 43 percent viewed Reid favorably while 39 percent viewed him unfavorably. Analysts say Reid's status as Democratic leader has led many Republicans to denounce him as an obstructionist, Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. Reid's camp shrugged off the results. The survey of 625 regular voters was conducted last Monday through Wednesday and has a 4-point error margin.

Reid is not up for re-election until 2010, so I wouldn't spend too much time trying to figure whether this will make him vulnerable.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Hotline: Dems Losing the Edge on Ethics

Not much new here, just an observation from one of DC's leading policy/political journals that Democrats' mounting ethics problems are costing them the issue.

Mercurio does raise one scandal that I neglected to mention earlier:

Moving on to Montana, where the Billings Gazette reported last week that state Auditor John Morrison, the presumptive front-runner in the Democratic primary to challenge vulnerable GOP Sen. Conrad Burns, had an extramarital affair in the late 1990s.

Harmless enough, perhaps, in the post-Lewinsky era. Except that, more specifically, Morrison was forced to hire an outside attorney to handle an '03 securities fraud investigation, in part because his two-month extramarital affair in 1998 was with a woman who later married a businessman whose companies Morrison's office investigated, according to the Gazette. Morrison's office reached a settlement with businessman David Tacke, which ordered him to offer refunds to investors.

The issue so far has gained little traction. Morrison's primary rival, state Senate President Jon Tester, doesn't have enough money to run TV ads on such a risky topic, and Burns has demurred when asked about it. "I don't know anything about that, so it's a non-question," he said April 10.

But again, just as they were with Mollohan, Democrats were relying heavily on Morrison to lead the ethics charge against Burns, who replaced DeLay as the poster-child of the Abramoff scandal after the Texan stepped down. No longer. "It's good news for Tester, and it's good news for Burns. It's hard to believe Democrats would nominate him now. He's blown it," the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato told the AP this week. "The Clinton disease has spread to Big Sky Democrats."


NOT for those with queasy stomachs:

Bodies: The Exhibition

New York Times Calls for Mollohan to Step Aside

I missed this New York Times editorial yesterday:

April 12, 2006
As the Ethics Panel Ossifies
Inert and feckless, the House ethics committee stands as a laughable oxymoron. It is a still life in partisan gridlock even as the issue of Congressional corruption captures voters' attention. Now its ranking Democrat, Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, has emerged as the latest example of the sort of shady dealings that have sent Congress plummeting in the public's estimation. News articles have disclosed that Mr. Mollohan, while unstinting in criticizing Republicans for the abuses of the Jack Abramoff scandal, has made a lucrative art form of the notorious budget "earmarks" by which lawmakers customize pork projects for favored constituents back home.

Mr. Mollohan has channeled $250 million in taxpayer money to five nonprofit organizations, all designed by him in the name of local economic development. The congressman created what looks like a patronage machine that rewards him with campaign contributions from grateful nonprofit executives who often owe their jobs to him — one of them at a $500,000 salary paid by federal earmark.

Republican partisans, looking to counter their own ethical problems, question how in the course of just four years Mr. Mollohan managed to become a millionaire while in Congress. The lawmaker denies any corner cutting, citing legitimate investments in a soaring real estate market. But clearly Mr. Mollohan deserves immediate scrutiny — if only Congress were up to that task.

Unfortunately, the ethics committee was immobilized by Republican leaders back when Representative Tom DeLay ran into trouble in 2004. It has gathered more cobwebs than courage, mired in partisan one-upsmanship. If Democrats seriously seek the anticorruption edge in the coming elections, they had better force Representative Mollohan to quit the panel. More important, both parties have little time left to show some spine and approve a vital proposal, now bottled up, to create an independent integrity office. It would have the power to investigate dicey legislative dealings and enforce standards for a Congress now in ethics denial.

Steele Looking Competitive in Maryland

With the likelihood that Republicans will lose seats in both the Senate this year, each race becomes critical. One state where Republicans have no business contending is Maryland. This year however, it looks like Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele gives Republicans a chance. More good news for his campaign is that he is raising money faster than his leading Democratic rival, Congressman Ben Cardin.

Hopefully Steele can keep this race competitive, and even take away a seat that Democrats have formerly owned.

Will the Echo Chamber Help Republicans or Democrats?

Politics in Washington, D.C., is often like an echo chamber. One or two people say something, others think it sounds insightful and repeat it, and eventually it becomes conventional wisdom. Often there are not many nuggets of data to support the Conventional Wisdom, but it prevails anyway.

Right now, the CW on this year's midterm elections is unclear. For a long time it was assumed that the Democrats would be unable to gain the 15 seats they need to retake control of the House. The primary reason is that the scandalous gerrymandering of Congressional seats leaves very few that are remotely competitive. But for whatever the reason, most in Washington have thought ever since the 2004 election, that Republicans would retain control of the House after 2006.

The perception is important because it can do a lot to shape the reality. If potential Congressional candidates believe that their party will do well or poorly in a given year, it can help them decide whether to run now, or wait for two years. If a Congressional incumbent in a swing seat thinks that his party will regain the majority, he or she is more likely to run for re-election than if another term out-of-power looms. When lobbyists are deciding where to make donations, judgments about a given Congressman's likely level of influence are very important - and that rests a great deal on whether he's in the majority or minority.

So while people spent all of 2005 working under the assumption that Republicans would have a narrowed majority in 2007, they certainly thought they would still be in the majority. But with the turn of the new year, and stories about Jack Abramoff, Hurricane Katrina, continued problems in Iraq, out-of-control federal spending, feuding over immigration legislation, and a whole raft of others, the CW came open for review. With the precipitous drop in approval ratings for the President and Congressional Republicans, people began to doubt the accepted CW. They began to wonder whether things would get SO bad for Republicans, that Democrats might take control.

I think that the last month or two has represented a tipping point. All it would take was a few small data points - a Republican loss in the race for Duke Cunningham's seat, or a poll showing Tom DeLay losing his re-election bid, or one of DC's senior election analysts predicting a Democratic takeover - for that idea to resound through the echo chamber and change the CW. But as far as I can tell, Republicans are navigating their way through those narrow straits.

And where will the CW shift next? Articles like today's in the Washington Post bring cheer to Republicans. The Post characterizes the Democratic effort to retake the House of Representatives as an uphill climb. And as for DC's leading political anlysts, Stu Rothenberg tells the Post that Democrats look likely to fall short, and he recently wrote that Democrats haven't expanded the playing field enough to have much of a shot at the majority. Larry Sabato - another prognosticator who carries a lot of weight in DC - cautions that the partisan shift this year is likely to be pretty small.

In the echo chamber that is Washington, D.C., Republican prospects are looking up right now.

Post Steps Further out onto the Plank

The Washington Post follows up today on yesterday's misleading article about those Iraqi trailers. Rather than correcting their story to reflect the truth - that the survey team the Post writes about was the only one of three such teams to conclude that the trailers were not used for WMD production, and that their findings were at odds with what other teams had concluded and with the consensus opinion of the intelligence community at the time - the Post continues to try to pigeonhole this story into one more 'White House under fire' narrative.

Hilton Hotels vs. Our Troops

It seems that the Capitol Hilton is refusing to renew the lease of a DC steakhouse called Fran O'Brien's because they are concerned about the liability of having injured US servicement and women eating there. Fran O'Brien's has been providing free meals to injured troops since 2003, but the Hilton is apparently concerned about the potential for facing suits under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Check out the details at Argghhh!!!, and contact the Hilton to let them know you support our troops.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Common Sense not a Requirement for Federal Law Enforcement

One of the more popular videos circulated over the Internet in recent years is the one of a DEA agent shooting himself in the foot during a gun safety lecture in an Orlando classroom. Well, the agent has responded in the great American tradition: He's suing the DEA for allowing the video to be distributed.

The Smoking Gun link has the video of the shooting. If you're squeamish, it doesn't look all that bad. The agent - identified as Lee Paige, tells the class "I'm the only one in this room professional enough that I know of to carry this Glock 40," he assures the class that it is not loaded, and then he skillfully and safely discharges the weapon into his foot, in a way that only someone skilled in gun safety can do.

Paige's suit says that the wide distribution of the video has caused him to be the "target of jokes, derision, ridicule, and disparaging comments." He writes that he was "once regarded as one of the best undercover agents, if not the best, in the DEA," and notes that he is no longer "permitted or able to give educational motivational speeches and presentations."

I would say that the widespread distribution of the video was necessary, but not sufficient, to have this effect. It was also necessary that he make himself the justifiable object of derision. Isn't there some requirement that federal agents have some cojones?

Give it Up, Braves Fans!

This is a cool site that plays the remainder of the baseball season a million times, and presents the results statistically, to let you know each team's chances of making the playoffs.

After the first week or so, it looks like Baltimore and Toronto can start planning for next year - there's only a 10 percent chance that either one will make the playoffs this year. And you Twins fans are in the same boat: forget the 5 straight years above .500, and winning the division 3 out of 4 years - your chances of getting into the playoffs are a little below 5 percent. And Philadelphia, picked by many to be a power this year, has got a 12.7 percent chance of appearing in the postseason.

Conversely, good news for Colorado fans, whose 5-2 start makes them almost even odds to make the playoffs. Similarly St. Louis, currently parked in 5th place in their division, still have an 80 percent chance of competing for World Series rings.

Really makes you wonder why they even bother to play the season. Probably just to get a chance to see Barry Bonds finally expolode.

The Culture of Corruption

Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean are among the a number of Democratic leaders calling for voters to punish Congressional Republicans for allowing a 'culture of corruption' to develop in Washington. It's becoming clearer that they may be right.

But the problem clearly goes beyond the names you're reading in the paper every day: people like Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Tom DeLay and others. Turns out there are a bunch of offenders who are not getting as much attention. I'm reminded of this by story on CNN today. It reports that John Conyers, the Senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and the second-ranking Member of the House overall, has been using his staff to baby-sit his kids, and been forcing them to work on other people's campaigns. There's some more detail in this recent article from the publication "The Hill."

Mr. Conyers's staff got in trouble last year for stealing Thanksgiving turkeys from a food bank.

Besides Mr. Conyers, I'm sure you've read about Cynthia McKinney, and her apparent assault of a Capitol Police officer.

I've written below about Congressman Alan Mollohan - Senior Democrat on the House Ethics Committee - and the windfalls he seems to have secured from his position on the Appropriations Committee.

There are also allegations that Congressman Bill Jefferson - one of the smarter and easier to work with Democrats in Congress - demanded bribes in exchange for assistance on telecommunications deals.

You've got Jim McDermott, convicted for illegally taping and disseminating a private conversation among political rivals.

There's Chuck Schumer, whose staff at the DSCC has pled guilty to illegally posing as Senate candidate Michael Steele, in order to obtain his credit records.

Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid accepted $61,000 from Native American tribes who employed Jack Abramoff, but only after Abramoff came on board to represent them. One of those tribes even donated to Reid immediately after he acted on their behalf.

The hits just keep on coming...

Well, at least he can laugh

In the sort of friendly, joking piece that George Bush will never see in a million years, the Associated Press reports that Bill Clinton can laugh at some of the headline-generating controversies he's been involved in.

What great news that is! I'm glad he hasn't taken it too seriously that he was impeached for perjury, failed to address the insolvency of our major entitlement programs, rejected Osama Bin Laden when he was handed up on a silver platter, or did nothing of substance to fight Al Qaeda, even as he regarded terrorism as a threat on par with the Cold War. (For more on this, look at Richard Clarke's account of Clinton's inaction in Against All Enemies).

And even as he demonstrates that he can rise above these trying times, he offers sage advice like "In this interdependent world, we should still have a preference for peace over war." Well, thanks for that. It's a powerful argument against those among us who opt for needless war.

The AP also lets us know that this sage said "anytime somebody said in my presidency, 'If you don't do this people will think you're weak,' I always asked the same question for eight years: "Can we kill 'em tomorrow?"

Who did Clinton pick to advise him? Did he really hear this phrase all that much? If any of his braintrust found more than a few occasions where the image of strength was the deciding factor - rather than the military objective at hand - I would be very worried about their worldview.

Deception from the Post

Captain Ed provides an excellent takedown of the Washington Post's deceptive reporting about DoD's analysis of Iraqi trailers initially believed to be associated with the WMD program. The upshot? The Post buries the truth and misrepresents the facts.

More Hypocrisy from Congressional Democrats

The New York Times today writes about Democratic concern that Ted Kennedy will make a bad deal on immigration. The article describes how Republican and Democratic Senate leaders - including John McCain, Ted Kennedy, Bill Frist and Harry Reid - arrived at a compromise on amnesty provisions

[McCain and Kennedy] managed to bring other influential senators on board and presented a comprehensive plan that provided part of the framework for legislation approved by the Judiciary Committee. Though that plan met resistance from Senate Republicans who viewed it as amnesty for those who had entered the country illegally, the Senate announced a tentative agreement that embraced a version of the Kennedy-McCain approach. But it lasted only hours. Mr. Frist, confronted by angry members of his party, insisted on the opportunity to allow consideration of some amendments. Democrats balked.

In a meeting Thursday evening in Mr. Reid's office, Mr. Kennedy argued for moving ahead with the bill, confident that the votes were there to beat back objectionable changes and that the debate could build momentum for the measure. Mr. Reid and his leadership team countered that the amendments were meant to derail the bill. They feared that without some assurances by Mr. Frist on negotiations with the House, the bill could be hijacked by Republicans. Mr. Kennedy lost.

So the goal of Senate Democrats on this topic is to get a deal on amnesty that they can support, and then make sure that:

1) Senate Republicans don't have an opportunity to amend it; and,
2) That it is not changed in negotiations with House Republicans.

What defenders of Democracy and the rule of the majority!

This is a far cry from what the Democrats' call for open debate when the House considered its immigration bill. In fact Alcee Hastings, one of the Democratic leaders debating the bill, complained that Republicans were trying to shut down the debate:

This restrictive rule blocks all but a select few from offering amendments to the underlying legislation. The chairman of the Rules Committee was in here a minute ago and said that they have made more Democratic measures, speaking of the entirety of the session, in order than Republican measures. Well, that does not hold for this particular party in part B, a very confusing process, I might add, which even the majority leader recognized.

Republicans are again allowing important and critical debates to happen behind the closed doors of the Republican Conference rather than on the House floor in the eye of the public.

Seems like Congressman Hastings would have a real problem with the actions of Harry Reid. Are there any other Democrats who might have trouble with Reid's effort to close off debate? Well, I found a Senior Senate Democrat who recently said this:

...That is why we have an amendment process in the Senate. The junior Senator from Wisconsin has tried to offer a small number of relevant amendments that I believe would make this bill even better. I am disappointed that he has been denied that opportunity by a procedural maneuver known as “filling the amendment tree.”

This is a very bad practice. It runs against the basic nature of the Senate. The hallmark of the Senate is free speech and open debate. Rule 22 establishes a process for cutting off debate and amendments, but Rule 22 should rarely be invoked before any amendments have been offered. There is no reason to truncate Senate debate on this important bill in this unusual fashion.

In case you're wondering, the Senate Democrat who said this was one Harry Reid of Nevada, protesting the efforts of Senate Republicans to limit amendments to the Patriot Act. It comes from all the way back in February.

It seems that Congressional Democrats support open debate when it is politically expedient, and want to squelch debate when it suits them politically. In fact, Ruben Navarette charges that they favor cutting off debate for political gain, even if it means surrendering legislative victories. But they only do that if they think they can get away with it.

Monday, April 10, 2006

More on Mollohan

I'd enjoy writing about other stuff, but the continuing news about Alan Mollohan is too interesting to ignore. On Saturday, the New York Times took its shot at Mr. Mollohan - and already it's looking bad for him:

Congressman's Special Projects Bring Complaints
Published: April 8, 2006

As lawmakers have increasingly slipped pet projects into federal spending bills over the past decade, one lawmaker has used his powerful perch on the House Appropriations Committee to funnel $250 million into five nonprofit organizations that he set up...

The most ambitious effort by the congressman, Alan B. Mollohan, is a glistening glass-and-steel structure with a swimming pool, sauna and spa rising in a former cow pasture in Fairmont, W.Va., thanks to $103 million of taxpayer money he garnered through special spending allocations known as earmarks.

The headquarters building is likely to sit largely empty upon completion this summer, because the Mollohan-created organization that it was built for, the Institute for Scientific Research, is in disarray, its chief executive having resigned under a cloud of criticism over his $500,000 annual compensation, also paid by earmarked federal money.

The five organizations have diverse missions but form a cozy, cross-pollinated network in the forlorn former coal capitals of north-central West Virginia. Mr. Mollohan has recruited many of their top employees and board members, including longtime friends or former aides, who in turn provide him with steady campaign contributions and positive publicity in their newsletters...

The earmarking occurred as an abundance of local projects was added to spending bills outside the normal budget review, from $32.9 billion in 2000 to $64 billion in 2006, the Congressional Research Service said. Although it is impossible to trace individual earmarks for certain, an analysis by Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington watchdog, found $480 million added in the House or in conference committees, most likely by Mr. Mollohan, for his district since 1995. That sum helped West Virginia rank fourth on the watchdog list — $131.58 for each of the 1.8 million West Virginians this year.

Although Mr. Mollohan's mentor, Senator Robert C. Byrd, has long blanketed the state in bacon in the form of large public works projects and federal complexes, Mr. Mollohan has directed more than half his earmarks to his five organizations of his design. Several people involved in the appropriations process said no other lawmaker employed that strategy to the same extent...

The Quid Pro Quos

"The congressman gave us money" for this or that is how the groups' leaders frequently explain their programs. And they generally return the favor at fund-raisers.

A review of campaign finance records by The New York Times shows that from 1997 through February 2006, top-paid employees, board members and contractors of the five organizations gave at least $397,122 to Mr. Mollohan's campaign and political action committees.

Be sure to check out the article for details on the organizations that benefitted from earmarks, their support for Mollohan, and his weak defense.

The Politics of the Mollohan Race

For those curious about the Republican chances of winning Alan Mollohan's seat in November, National Journal profiles the district here. Note that respected political analyst Charlie Cook rates this as a Republican-leaning district.

Note that the filing deadline for West Virginia House races has closed already, and the primary is May 9. The West Virginia Secretary of State lists Alan Mollohan as the only Democrat who qualified for the primary.

Problems for Porkbusters

With the increased attention given to earmarks lately - during the House Republican race for Majority Leader, in the scrutiny of Duke Cunningham, Alan Mollohan, Tom DeLay, and others, and in the focus on earmark reform as one way to help restrain federal spending - I think it's worth noting that fighting earmarks may be a lot tougher than people realize.

First off, most earmarks are not included in federal legislation. There are some appropriations bills rich with pork, where you can read the entire bill and not see any of them mentioned. This is because the most common way of earmarking dollars is through the Appropriations Committee report that accompanies the bill. These reports are prepared by the Committee and its staff, and they give directions to federal agencies about how money is to be spent. These instructions are often detailed and valuable. For example, a look at the House Committee report accompanying the 2006 Energy and Water Appropriations Act yields this useful instruction (on page 14):

When the Corps transfers funds from one project to another, it makes a promise to `repay' the borrowed amounts. These cumulative actions have created a significant financial obligation that the Corps has no way to honor except to continue the practice ad infinitum and to repay these borrowings from future appropriations. However, these repayments are not budgeted, nor can the Corps even provide an accurate accounting of these accumulated IOUs. This system may have worked well for the Corps in the past when budgets were rising and when the Corps carried over substantial unobligated balances from year to year. But, more recently, unobligated balances have all but disappeared, endangering the Corps' ability to honor its multitude of promises to `repay' borrowed funds to project sponsors except from new appropriations. The Committee is concerned that neither it nor the Corps knows the full extent of the payback required. Accordingly, the Corps is directed to submit a report to the House and Senate Committee on Appropriations, within 30 days of enactment of this Act summarizing, by project, the cumulative amount of repayments owed to the donor projects. The Committee further directs that these repayments be fully budgeted in the fiscal year 2007 budget presented to Congress.

This is the sort of thing that makes up most of the Committee report. The agencies funded typically treat this language as if it were staute, and follow these directions. That only makes sense; if they didn't, most of this stuff would begin to find its way into the actual text of the bill, and no one needs that level of detail or complexity.

However, these Committee reports are also the primary place you find earmarks. For example, pages 20-33 of the same report contain lists of dozens of projects to be funded, with specific instructions as to the level of funding for each. This is what pork-barrelling looks like. And while my examples here are from the House Committee report, the Senate Committee produces its own version of the bill, with its own report, and its own earmarks.

Once the bill has passed both Houses, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees meet to produce a conference report, which resolves both the differences in the bills, and the differences in the Committee reports (eg: here). Those conference reports can be very challenging to scrutinize. You may be forced to do quite a bit of work to find out how the earmarks on each side were treated. And of course, brand new earmarks can be inserted at this stage of the process as well.

Now if this were all there is to cutting off earmarks - changing Congressional rules to prevent any of these from making it into statutory language or reports, that would be hard enough. However, during my work in Congress, I encountered at least one other type of earmark. There are times when the Appropriations Committee sets a given level of funding for a program, but directs that expenditures from that program had to be agreed upon between the agency and the Appropriations Committee. In such a case, there may be a verbal consultation, followed by a letter that lists a whole raft of projects, with an agreed-upon funding level for each. Once again, the agency can treat such agreements as binding, because to do otherwise would be to invite the wrath of the Chairman that sets your budget.

All of this is not to say that earmarks can't be stopped, but to stress how difficult it may be to do so. And ultimately, it can't be done with rules changes alone - it will require constant watchdog efforts - preferably by Members of Congress (let's call them 'Fifth Columnists'), but also by taxpayer watchdogs. Absent such efforts, there are simply too many ways to skin the cat, and Members of Congress will figure out how to continue business as usual.