Earmark Subterfuge

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, March 19, 2007

As part of "Sunshine Week," meant to promote transparent government, the Office of Management and Budget was supposed to release a comprehensive database last Monday revealing the number and cost of earmarks since 2005. It did not. Word on Capitol Hill was that OMB was muzzled by the White House for fear of offending powerful congressional appropriators.

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee staffs under Democratic control are privately asking individual senators for earmark requests, without much transparency. That would seem to make a sham of the pledge by Appropriations Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va) to "place a moratorium on all earmarks until a reformed process is put in place."

Thanks partly to the outcome of the 2006 elections, members of Congress can no longer blithely earmark funds for pet projects. But in the dark recesses of Capitol Hill, lawmakers from both parties are continuing the pernicious practice as best they can. The question is whether they will be curbed by the Republican administration or the Democratic Congress, or by both.

OMB Director Rob Portman, a former member of the House Republican leadership, is a firm opponent of earmarks. On Jan. 25, he signed a memorandum for heads of departments on the collection of information about earmarks. It set forth a rigid timeline to culminate in the posting on March 12 of all these data on the "public Internet." What would be revealed would be a rare exposure of the murky world of congressional pork.

But just as OMB was preparing to put out the information, it sent word to Capitol Hill that -- over the agency's protests -- the data were being kept under wraps by the White House to appease the appropriators. With Congress in the midst of the budget process, President Bush's team did not want to stir up the Hill.

All that was released last Monday was a compilation of 2005 earmarks, with few details. Portman publicly called it "an important first step towards providing greater transparency." In private, however, he said last week: "My hands are tied." Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), scourge of earmarks, told me: "I think the American people should be very disappointed."

An even stronger example of the resiliency of the congressional pork purveyors is the appropriators' noncompliance with the ethics bill that passed the Senate 96 to 2 but awaits final enactment. Coburn delivered a letter to Chairman Byrd, saying: "The committee's failure to make earmark information public would make a mockery of recently passed earmark reforms and would suggest to taxpayers that the Senate wants to continue to earmark funds in secret."

Skimpy though the information is, however, OMB's posting still generated calls of protest to the agency from members of Congress. It is business as usual in the earmarks business orchestrated by the Senate Appropriations subcommittees.

On Feb. 21, the interior, environment and related agencies subcommittee sent senators a detailed procedure for earmarks with a March 30 deadline. On Feb. 28, the chairman and ranking Republican on the energy and water development subcommittee asked for earmark requests that "identify" their "beneficial role." On March 7, the agriculture subcommittee sent senators a request form.

Such request forms generally omit the requirements of the new ethics bill: for example, disclosure of any personal financial interest in an earmark by a member of Congress. The labor, health and human services and education subcommittee's form asks only that the request be made by April 13. Coburn's letter to Byrd: "Your experience and institutional knowledge are invaluable, and I look forward to working with you to ensure that all taxpayers dollars are expended in a fully transparent and responsible manner."

Whether or not Coburn really expects help from Capitol Hill's king of pork, he surely would like to see George W. Bush shrug off the threat of the appropriators and get involved in the war against earmarks. A senior White House aide has advised that the full story, expected last week, will be told by the end of the month. It will be a good test of presidential intent.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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