Squeezing the Earmark Balloon

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Thinkprogress.org

Overreaching to the point of ridiculousness can sometimes return results – in the opposite direction. Last month, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) announced a ban on earmarks to for-profit companies.

The next day the House Republican Conference voted for a one-year moratorium on all earmark requests. It was as if an earmark disarmament race had begun.

What brought that on? Well, a couple weeks before, the House Ethics Committee released results of their investigation into potential pay-to-play earmarks surrounding the now shuttered PMA lobby shop.

The committee noted that, contrary to the view held by most in the world, there was “no evidence that Members or their official staff considered campaign contributions as a factor when requesting earmarks.” Interesting. But the Ethics Committee should know—its members pulled down $200 million in earmarks over the last three years. The Ethics Committee report was met with the scorn and skepticism it deserved and voila, the next round of reforms were in place.

These reforms are significant. According to the House Appropriations Committee, there were 1,000 for-profit company earmarks worth $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2010. And there were 1,200 House Republican-only earmarks worth $1 billion that same year. Eliminate the overlap and you are looking at dropping $2.5 billion–a quarter of the $10 billion in Congressionally disclosed earmarks in FY10!

For-profit earmarks are where the rubber meets the road—thousands of dollars in campaign contributions can net a company millions in earmarked taxpayer cash. And a one-year moratorium would give lawmakers some much needed breathing room to work with the Administration to get structures and systems in place to make spending decisions more transparent, accountable and based on merit, competition or formulas. But not so fast. Because we have a bicameral system, the Senate has a say in the matter. And Senate Appropriations Chairman Inouye (D-HI) and Ranking Member Cochran (R-MS) were unequivocal in dismissing the House actions, with Sen. Inouye stating the for-profit ban “didn’t make sense.”

If the Senate doesn’t go along with the House on these issues, it will be like squeezing a balloon – much of the campaign cash and lobbying effort will simply flow to the Senate side of the Capitol and the earmarks will follow. It remains to be seen what will actually happen as appropriations season opens next month. There will certainly be some battles royal on the House floor. And that’s before the House and the Senate meet to hammer out their differences—Chairman Obey and Chairman Inouye in an earmark steel cage match. All that’s missing is a referee.

That’s where the Administration must step in. Early in his Senate tenure, President Obama declined to seek earmarks for for-profit companies. Later he renounced earmarks altogether. The President has both the moral high ground and the bully pulpit on this issue. He can easily resolve the House-Senate battle by declaring he will veto any bill that contains earmarks to for-profit companies. Problem solved.

Similarly, House Republicans must use the moratorium to develop and refine the reforms they want to see. A moratorium is useless unless you emerge advocating real earmark reforms to make spending decisions more transparent and accountable to the American taxpayer. We’ve even come up with some to get them started:

*Commit to cutting earmarks 50 percent a year for the next five years.

*Term limit earmarks to the same project for no more than three years.

*Make spending history and justification of earmarks public.

*Create a user-friendly earmark database.

*No earmarks in programs with existing competitive award systems.

There’s more here. We’re heartened by the progress on earmarks over the last few years. Now the recent House actions have provided a golden opportunity to take a giant leap toward more transparent and accountable spending. It’s time for the Senate and the President to step up.

Report by Taxpayers for Common Sense

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