As Spending Deadline Looms, Congress Debates Earmarks

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007

President Bush told Congress last week that he wants to cut earmarks in half, a popular notion after the $223 million "bridge to nowhere" and other seemingly wasteful projects were tucked into the federal budget by lawmakers.

And Democrats now in charge of spending on Capitol Hill say they will not allow those narrow, special-interest provisions when they introduce a resolution this week to fund the federal government for the remaining eight months of the current fiscal year. Those unprecedented ground rules complicate an urgent matter, for unless Congress can agree on a new spending plan by Feb. 15, the government will shut down.

But what precisely is an earmark?

That question has been at the heart of passionate negotiations across the capital as lawmakers, federal agencies and lobbyists argue over what constitutes waste and what is legitimate spending.

"I heard an appropriator say this week that it was like Justice [Potter] Stewart's definition of pornography -- it's hard to define an earmark, but he knew it when he saw it," one Democratic staffer said.

The debate goes beyond semantics. The stakes are huge -- deciding how to spend $463 billion between now and Sept. 30 on thousands of programs run by local communities, states and federal agencies. While public debate on Capitol Hill has been dominated by the war in Iraq, closed-door arguments about what the federal government will fund this year have been nearly as intense.

The Congressional Research Service says there is no widely accepted definition of "earmark." The White House won't take a stab at it either, saying through a spokesman that it will be addressed when the president presents his fiscal 2008 budget next month.

"Defining earmarks is a little like defining a terrorist," said Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group aimed at making government more transparent. "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Part of the problem is there is no standard. Some of the earmarks are good stuff that government ought to be doing. This has the potential of throwing the baby out with the bath water."

Earmarks have exploded in number in the past decade -- climbing from 4,126 in 1994 to 12,852 in 2006, according to the Congressional Research Service -- and this has led to abuses. Former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) is serving a prison sentence after pleading guilty to bribery for steering government money through earmarks to defense contractors that gave him expensive gifts in return.

Citizens Against Government Waste, which publishes an annual "Congressional Pig Book" cataloguing pork-barrel spending, considers an earmark to be "a project inserted by a member into legislation without debate or hearings, usually to serve someone or some special interest," said Thomas Schatz, president of the group. By that definition, CAGW identified 9,963 earmarks in the 11 appropriations bills in 2006 that cost taxpayers $29 billion.

But federal budget expert Brian Riedl at the Heritage Foundation said an earmark is "anytime Congress specifies who will receive a government grant or contract, anytime they list an entity, specific recipient or location."

If that meaning is applied, vast swaths of the federal budget could be considered earmarks. Take the Army Corps of Engineers, for instance. Most of its budget consists of individual projects to repair dams, dredge harbors and build bridges -- each of which is an earmark under Riedl's definition. The same goes for the Environmental Protection Agency, which has a budget filled with specific clean-water projects and sewer-improvement plans.

If it adheres to Riedl's definition, Congress could just provide lump sums to federal agencies without directions specifying which projects should be funded. That would give the Bush administration significantly more flexibility in spending.

"It cedes more power to the executive branch," said Rep. James T. Walsh (N.Y.), the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and related agencies. "The Congress has the power of the purse. . . . For us to give that up is a mistake."

Walsh unsuccessfully argued that $700,000 for gang-prevention programs in Syracuse and $10 million for nuclear fusion work at the University of Rochester are vital to his district and deserve a place in this year's budget. Those items had been vetted by the Appropriations Committee last year and approved by the House but now have been caught up in the Democrats' earmarks moratorium, he said: "That has always been the problem, trying to define what an earmark is. Some of it is essential spending."

Last year, the Republican-controlled Congress failed to pass nine of the 11 annual appropriations bills that finance the federal government. Though the House did approve most of those bills, Senate leaders never scheduled votes on them. Congress ratified money for defense and homeland security but left the rest of the federal budget -- including Social Security, Medicare, veterans programs, education and transportation -- in limbo.

They have been operating at 2006 levels through a series of stopgap measures, the latest of which expires Feb. 15. If Congress does not approve some new type of funding measure by that date, the federal government will screech to a halt.

The Democrats who took over the appropriations process in the new Congress, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), said it would take too much time to complete the regular appropriations process for the current fiscal year at the same time they expect to begin examining Bush's fiscal 2008 budget.

To quickly resolve the current budget, the Democrats are writing a resolution to fund the government -- without earmarks -- for the remainder of the year. Obey and Byrd expect the resolution to total $463 million, the amount left over from Bush's 2007 budget after the homeland security and defense budgets are removed.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said he intends to bring their resolution to the House floor Wednesday.

Obey's staff has been the target of "intense" pressure, letters, phone calls and visits from other lawmakers and lobbyists trying to make a case that their particular earmarks are necessary and not pork, according to one Democratic staffer.

In a recent private meeting with Republican members of his committee, Obey spelled it out: no exceptions to the earmark moratorium.

"It's caused a lot of heartburn among members," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "Everybody has now pretty much come to the reality that it's not going to happen."

Obey and Byrd said earmarks will resume with the 2008 budget, but under new rules passed by the Democrats. Legislators will have to disclose any earmark they insert and will have to certify they have no personal financial interest in the earmark, among other changes.

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