Thursday, March 11, 2010

Some welcome earmark reforms

The Democratic leaders of the House Appropriations Committee and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee have taken the welcome, albeit modest, step of prohibiting Congressional earmarks going to for-profit companies.
House Democratic leaders on Wednesday banned budget earmarks to private industry, ending a practice that has steered billions of dollars in no-bid contracts to companies and set off corruption scandals.

The ban is the most forceful step yet in a three-year effort in Congress to curb abuses in the use of earmarks, which allow individual lawmakers to award financing for pet projects to groups and businesses, many of them campaign donors.

But House Republicans, in a quick round of political one-upmanship, tried to outmaneuver Democrats by calling for a ban on earmarks across the board, not just to for-profit companies. Republicans, who expect an intra-party vote on the issue Thursday, called earmarks “a symbol of a broken Washington.”
The Democrats' decision is one of several that addresses the earmark mess that had exploded under the previous Republican leadership. Reforms in the last three years have made the process more transparent (prior to FY 2008, the number and amount of earmarks could not be reliably tracked; earmarks and their sponsors can now be monitored) and also appear to have curbed earmark spending.

The Democrats' most recent step probably owes more to ongoing, bubbling scandals (several involving earmarks) than any new-found virtue. The Democrats may have also been trying to stay one step ahead of House Republicans, who are considering a unilateral blanket ban on earmark requests. To the extent that Republicans align more closely with business concerns, the Democrats' move tilts not so subtly in their own favor.

The impact of this particular step may end up being modest. Other Democrats in the House are complaining, and Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have rediscovered bipartisanship in completely dismissing the idea.
Democratic appropriators in the Senate and House are fighting over a ban on earmarks to for-profit companies, throwing a wrench in a House attempt to burnish its ethics record before the midterm elections.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the Senate’s Appropriations Committee, slammed House Appropriations Chairman David Obey’s (D-Wis.) moratorium on earmarks to for-profit companies mere hours after Obey announced it on Wednesday.
The House Democrats' reform is modest in other ways. It still allows for earmarks to non-profits, such as universities (including this one). Representatives can also continue to press for parochial spending through other means, such as defense items that happen to be produced by certain companies or in certain districts.

At the same time, the Democrats' move could yield bigger dividends if it ignites an inter-party competition over earmark and ethical reforms. Let's hope that such a competition arises.