Friday, February 09, 2007

WSJ Focuses on Earmarks

Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal reports on how Democrats are continuing to earmark federal dollars, in conflict with their promises. The piece points up the importance of the efforts by Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, and other Senate Republicans to convince the Bush administration to cease cooperating with the Appropriations Committees on this effort:

That put the new House appropriations chief, Wisconsin's David Obey--a spender for our time--in the distasteful position of having to live up to his party's election promises to fix the earmark boondoggle. He begrudgingly promised a "moratorium." And last week, when Mr. Obey celebrated the passage of his $464 billion 2007 spending bill, he bragged that Democrats had fulfilled their promise and "stripped all earmarks from the measure."

"This decision doesn't come without pain," intoned Mr. Obey. "Many worthwhile earmarks are not funded in this measure, but we had to take this step to clear the decks, clean up the process and start over."

The key language here is "not funded in this measure," and it explains why Mr. Obey is still smiling through his pain. Congressional members, led by appropriators and an army of staff, have already figured out a new way to keep their favors in the money, and it might as well be called 1-800-EARMARKS (which unfortunately is already taken). All across Washington, members are at this moment phoning budget officers at federal agencies--Interior, Defense, HUD, you name it--privately demanding that earmarks in previous legislation be fully renewed again this year. There might not be a single official earmark in the 2007 spending bill, but thousands are in the works all the same.

And getting far less scrutiny than before--if that's even possible. Under this new regime, members don't even have to go to the trouble of slipping an earmark into a committee report, where it might later (once the voting is over) come in for criticism. All the profligates need now to keep the money flowing is a quiet office and a cellphone. ..

The administration has taken some steps to follow up on its earmark demands. In January, Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman sent a memo to every department and agency announcing new earmark requirements. From now on, the government will be required to identify and catalog earmarks in most spending bills, including earmarks hidden in committee reports. The memo also provided agencies with a tight definition of just what counts as an earmark, to make it harder for Congress to disguise its pork under another name.

That's useful for upcoming spending debates, but it doesn't shut down the current dial-a-thon. In last week's Energy Department memo, Mr. Kupfer noted that Mr. Obey's 2007 spending bill does not include earmarks, and that the agency is also not legally bound to honor prior projects. He directs the staff to carefully review any requests to renew earmarks and then decrees that "only those with meritorious proposals or programs that effectively support and advance the Department's missions and objectives . . . should receive FY 2007 funding." This is probably easier said than done, but it's a start. No word yet if other agencies are following suit.

As I noted yesterday, if the administration refuses to cooperate on earmarking, it will set off a war with the Appropriations Committees.

Longtime readers will recall that I first talked about this style of earmarking many months ago.

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