Earmark Reform Still Needs Reforming
We started this new year with bright hopes for reform in Congress. We heard the people's call for a more honest and open Congress and we agreed. During the fall campaign season, Democrats promised, to hold representatives more accountable in funding requests for earmarks in order to stop things like "the bridge to nowhere" in Alaska and indoor rainforests in Iowa. They also promised to reduce spending and demonstrate fiscal discipline. I'm for shedding light on government processes, I've always believed that the government in Washington should be more accountable to the people they represent, and I want to reduce federal spending to keep taxes low, to reduce the federal deficit and to keep more money in your wallets, and not in the hands of government bureaucrats. I was glad to hear the new Democratic majority echo those thoughts.
Now nearly six months later these statements just aren't holding up.
I agreed with calls for responsible spending. I supported many of the new majority's reforms hoping we could make Congress better. I agreed with implementing the PAYGO rule that says you pay for spending increases as they're implemented by spending cuts or revenue increases. But Democrats have already waived this rule on multiple occasions and failed to follow the spirit of it by including funding, like relief for avocado farmers, in early versions of the Iraq War Funding bill. The new majority is spending at every opportunity, and waiving the rules they themselves wrote when it's convenient!
I supported the idea of an open process for funding earmarks. We should have more scrutiny of members and their projects. Recently however, Appropriations Chairman David Obey, announced no earmarks would be inserted into Appropriations bills until the final version of the bill is negotiated with the Senate. That means, the bill must pass the House subcommittee, the full Appropriations Committee, and the entire House without any indication of possible earmarks. Then the bill goes to a Conference Committee where a group of senators and representatives work out the differences between the versions of the bills, insert the earmarks and then send the bill back to their respective chambers for final approval. That doesn't give a lot of time for scrutiny and review.
Even with the new system the appropriations chairman outlined, the process hasn't worked that way, yet. The reality of the Defense bill was a little different. Earmarks were not made available until right before the bill came to the Floor, therefore avoiding proper scrutiny and prohibiting any amendments that would strip out the earmarks. Not only did the bill contain 26 earmarks, including three for Congressman John Murtha. When a Republican member questioned the worthiness of one of the earmarks Congressman Murtha threatened him. Congressman Murtha, a high-ranking member of the powerful Appropriations Committee that decides how money gets spent, said on the House Floor that he hoped that member didn't have projects for his district because they would not get funded, ever. This threat breaks House rules that say all members' requests receive equal consideration. Although, Congressman Murtha has since apologized to the member he threatened, the incident certainly sends a disturbing message.
The new majority made campaign promises that this was supposed to be one of the most open and honest Congresses in history. Democrats said they would lead the Congress differently and they are. It's worse. Now, I'll admit, the Republican Party wasn't always on the side of the angels when we were in the majority. But Democrats promised change. While a change in Washington may have been needed, I don't think this change is the kind voters had in mind.