Democrats Freeze Earmarks for Now
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Democratic leaders declared a temporary moratorium on special-interest provisions known as earmarks as they attempt to cope with a budget crisis left by the outgoing Republican-led 109th Congress.
Congress adjourned early Saturday, having completed work on two of the 11 spending bills for the 2007 fiscal year that began Oct. 1. As a short-term fix, lawmakers extended current funding levels until Feb. 15. But the incoming Democratic chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees announced yesterday that they would extend current levels until the 2008 fiscal year begins next Oct. 1.
The alternative was to attempt to finish work on the spending bills when the Democratic-led Congress convenes in January, a dreaded prospect that could have derailed Democratic legislative efforts and stirred up policy battles around the same time that President Bush is due to submit his fiscal 2008 budget to the Hill, along with a large supplemental spending request for the Iraq war.
The new chairmen, Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.) and Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), said in a statement: "While the results will be far from ideal, this path provides the best way to dispose of the unfinished business quickly, and allow governors, state and local officials, and families to finally plan for the coming year with some knowledge of what the federal government is funding."
They also said they would place a moratorium on all earmarks until lobbying changes are enacted. Those special spending provisions included in the unfinished fiscal 2007 bills will be eligible for consideration next year, the chairmen said, subject to new standards.
"We will work to restore an accountable, above-board, transparent process for funding decisions and put an end to the abuses that have harmed the credibility of Congress," the chairmen said.
The unfinished bills account for about $463 billion in annual spending and include just about every domestic program other than defense and homeland security.
The announcement appears to be a victory for conservative budget reformers, such as Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Tom Price (R-Ga.), who circulated a petition last week calling for a resolution that would extend funding through the rest of the year, but without earmarks. That petition, however, called for all domestic programs to be funded at the lowest levels called for in either the House or Senate versions.
In contrast, Obey and Byrd indicated that they would seek adjustments in spending levels to satisfy Democrats and moderate Republicans who were upset by the austere funding bills passed by the House Appropriations Committee. In particular, the measure to fund labor, health and education programs fell billions of dollars short of the Senate-approved levels, and the levels that even many House Republicans said were acceptable.
The biggest victory would be for those lawmakers who have crusaded against earmarks, or home-district pet projects. Virtually all of the bills that pass the Senate and House appropriations committees contain such projects. For the fiscal year that began in October and will end Sept. 30, the slate will be wiped clean.
Obey and Byrd noted that the last time Congress passed all appropriation bills separately and on schedule, and got them signed by the president in time for the next fiscal year, was in 1994, the last year they both served as chairmen. In November 1994, a month after the 1995 fiscal year began, Republicans won control of Congress.
For more or less every year since the takeover, the GOP has struggled to produce a smooth succession of spending bills, creating strained relations between the more ideologically minded Republican leadership in both chambers and their more practical-minded appropriations colleagues. Most recently, the Senate has been the stubborn obstacle, with Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) refusing to advance spending bills during a hard-fought election year.
Those tensions bubbled to the surface on the House floor as lawmakers wrapped up their business early Saturday. "The breakdown of regular order this cycle, indeed the failure to get our bills done, should be fairly placed at the feet of the departing Senate majority leader," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the outgoing House Appropriations Committee chairman.
Lewis noted that his panel passed each of the 11 subcommittee bills out of the full committee by June 30, and, with the exception of a giant bill that funds health and education programs, all of the bills off the House floor by the July 4 break. The Senate also passed each of its bills out of the full committee, only to see them run aground on the Senate floor.