Well, well, well, who would have guessed, eh?
This budget week, there was one thing on which Democrats and Republicans agreed: It's time to do something about earmarks. And in a nod to voter disapproval with these special-interest projects, this year Congress will do its pork spending in secret.
Welcome to Congress's new and dirtier earmark game, in which the big spenders are setting all the rules. In front of the cameras, both parties claim to have found earmark religion, and are talking up a bill that would reform the way Congress asks for billions in goodies for lawmakers' home districts. Behind the scenes, they're working feverishly to keep the earmarks rolling, this time using a technique outside of the legislative process and hidden from public view.
The gears on this new underground earmarking machine started whirring late last year, when Republicans failed in a lame-duck session to pass the 2007 spending bills. The GOP pork crowd wanted to use its last weeks in power to push through 12,000 more bridges to nowhere. Saner heads noted that the party had just lost an election in part due to these corrupting payoffs and urged restraint. The standoff resulted in Republicans punting the 2007 spending responsibility to the Democrats.
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.
Friday, February 09, 2007