By Dr. Tom Coburn
Wall Street Journal
Six months ago, the Democratic Party regained its majority in an election that was not just about Iraq. The new House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said the American people "called for greater integrity in Washington, and Democrats pledge to make this the most honest, ethical and open Congress in history."
The history of the intervening months has only confirmed that promises in Washington have a very short shelf life. Any promise not fulfilled within 60 days after an election is apparently considered expired, to be replaced with new promises. I saw this behavior in my own party with regard to the reform of pork-barrel spending -- aka "earmarks" -- and no Republican fought more forcefully against the forked-tongue syndrome than I did.
The most recent, and serious, backtrack on earmark reform is the unilateral declaration of House Appropriations Chairman David Obey that pork projects would be "airdropped" into conference reports once appropriations bills pass the House and Senate. Mr. Obey's move is a brazen attack against the platform his own leadership enthusiastically endorsed and many of his colleagues campaigned on. Placing pork into bills at the last possible moment would circumvent new House rules and make it vastly more difficult for members of Congress, outside groups and activists to identify and challenge egregious projects. Rather than setting a new standard of openness and honesty, it would set a new standard for secrecy and subterfuge.
Recall that it was Mr. Obey and his counterpart in the Senate, Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, who said in a joint statement last Dec. 11: "We will place a moratorium on all earmarks until a reformed process is put in place." No such reformation is in place, yet Congress is now considering some 32,000 requests and has already advanced hundreds of them -- including Democratic pork such as a beach nourishment project in San Diego, Calif., a duplicative visitors' center in Louisiana, and the unnecessary National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pa., located in Rep. John Murtha's district.
Republicans are all too eager to join in. Consider Alaska Rep. Don Young, one the architects of the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere." Mr. Young recently slipped into the House-passed Water Resources Development Act a provision authorizing federal funds to study the potential impact a "Bridge to Nowhere" might have on shipping navigation.
If earmark reform in the House is the story of "three steps forward, six steps back," as Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) tartly observed, the situation in the Senate resembles sidesteps. When we considered ethics and earmark reform in January, Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S. C.) ingeniously forced our chamber to vote on a strong earmark-reform package -- written by none other than House Speaker Pelosi herself. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid initially blocked the "DeMint/Pelosi" amendment, but after it was "modified" in a face-saving exercise it passed largely intact.
The DeMint/Pelosi language would disclose backdoor earmarks, often called report language earmarks, that are tucked away in non-binding, staff-written appropriations committee reports. Ninety-five percent of all earmarks are written as "coercive suggestions" to agencies in these explanatory reports that accompany bills. DeMint/Pelosi would make public the sponsors of earmarks, requiring members to file a public disclosure statement stating that neither they nor their spouse will benefit financially from a pork project. Finally, it would give members new procedural tools to block bills that violate these rules.
However, the underlying legislation, S.1, a central Democratic campaign promise, has gone nowhere since it passed five months ago. House and Senate conferees have not even begun meeting to iron out a final bill. Each day, it looks more like another expired promise.
Sen. Reid and top Senate Democrats have had two other opportunities to enact Ms. Pelosi's earmark reform language. They blocked both attempts, arguing that ethics reform must be done comprehensively, not in a piecemeal fashion -- conveniently making the perfect the enemy of the good and doable. Some members of Congress seem to be hoping the public will lose interest in earmark reform. That isn't likely. Voters and taxpayers continue to be enraged -- Congress's approval rating is an abysmal 27%, in part because reform hasn't happened. Presidential politics will keep the issue front and center, and the army of bloggers who have long led on this issue are ratcheting up their criticism of the status quo.
One blogger at the Web site Redstate.com coined the term "Earmarxists" to describe members who believe it is their right to usurp mayors and local government in order to redistribute wealth for projects like roads, bridges and museums. The arbitrary and unenforceable "trust-us-to-police-ourselves" approach to earmark reform that is prevailing in Congress does have more in common with one-party regimes than the transparent and accountable style of government American taxpayers rightly expect.
The fate of earmark reform ultimately is a question of leadership, particularly in the House. Ms. Pelosi should learn from the mistakes of former House Speakers Newt Gingrich and Denny Hastert, who essentially ceded the gavel to the Appropriations Committee on all matters related to spending, with disastrous consequences for the Republican Party. Ms. Pelosi also has to choose sides, not only with regard to her own appropriators, but between the American people and the vast majority of members in both parties who will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to earmark reform.
Mr. Obey continues to claim that he doesn't have time to sort through 32,000 earmark requests before the House considers spending bills, and he hopes to silence critics by offering to make pork requests public before the August recess. Ms. Pelosi shouldn't stand for this. She should rather insist that he conform to the earmark-reform provisions both chambers passed overwhelmingly, which makes projects public before, not after, the fact. House leaders also might want to remind Mr. Obey that if he is having a difficult time sorting through earmark requests he has the power to say no and dismiss requests out of hand.
If Mr. Obey's power grab succeeds in the House, he will have to be checked in the Senate where one lone senator can, and will, prevent spending bills from going to conference. Some Republicans are already hoping to make Mr. Obey's obstinance a campaign issue. Democratic leaders should do what's right not only for their party, but for the country, and solve this problem now before the voters solve it for them in the next election.