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September 13, 2006
New Effort At Earmark Reform In House

The House will take up a new rule tomorrow regarding earmarks that will force earmarkers to identify themselves with their targeted appropriations. The new rule, which only requires a simple majority, will also require conference reports to list their "airdropped earmarks" -- those appropriations that got added to bills after their individual adoption by the House and Senate by the conference members.

Last night, I had an opportunity to talk to a leadership staffer on the Hill. Currently, the House has no rules on earmark additions or identification. Previous reform efforts aimed at legislation failed on the differences in approach between the House and Senate, as well as differences on the exact definition of "earmark". Appropriators rejected any controls on appropriations alone, noting that earmarks occur in other legislation. Instead of trying to hammer all of the issues into legislation that would satisfy both chambers of Congress and the White House, the GOP leadership in the House decided to use a rule change to accomplish the effort.

The new rule will apply to all legislation, and would define earmarks as any amount of money designated to a non-federal entity for a purpose, regardless of the nature of the bill or report. Importantly, it also applies to any tax benefit intended to apply to a single entity. It does not apply to a class of beneficiaries, as Congress would not be directing funds to a specific target but making funds available to any qualifying entity.

How does this differ from the Coburn-Obama database? It would not create a searchable website for these earmarks, but it would require Representatives to be identified with each earmark in the Congressional Record. While Coburn-Obama applies to the executive branch, as the earmarks get paid through federal agencies, this new rule would apply to direct Congressional spending outside of executive-branch spending.

I asked about a new effort by Rahm Emanuel to amend this rule with more language that would prevent Representatives from adding earmarks where they have a personal connection to the recipient. The staffer reminded me that amendments to rules changes are almost always out of order, and that the GOP leadership did not want to create the need to referee the earmarking process. In my opinion (and not that of the staffer), such a rule may sound fine but would likely result in earmark trading. In other words, two or more members would simply propose earmarks for another, expecting that his earmarks would follow in return, which would make accountability for influence that much harder to track. The GOP approach would simply allow citizens to know who earmarked funds for whom, and let the voters hold politicians accountable.

Emanuel will attempt to offer the amendment during the debate, but will most likely be found out of order. The Democrats will then claim that the Republicans are not serious about earmark reform and use the refusal in the upcoming midterm elections. However, people should remember that Emanuel's proposal could simply be offered as a separate rule change and get its own vote. If it doesn't conflict with the pending rule change, both could be adopted and applied. If Emanuel doesn't offer the change separately, then we will know he never took it seriously.

Some may question the use of House rules rather than legislation. My source told me that negotiations to cast this into law still continues, but this will bring immediate sunlight on the process. House rules technically only last for each session, but the next Congress almost always adopts the previous session's rules in toto as one of its first tasks. The earmark rule would have the same permanence as any other House rule, and it's doubtful that any future House could get a majority to vote for secrecy in earmarking.

The rules should get posted to the Rules Committee website today in preparation for the debate tomorrow. Be sure to contact your Representative to push for the adoption of the rule requiring openness and honesty in federal appropriations.

UPDATE: The text of the proposed rule is here. Tim Chapman has more on this, and Red State has Majority Leader John Boehner blogging about it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 13, 2006 7:10 AM

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