taxpayer victories are hard to come by in Congress, so each one is
sweet. The recent and successful fight to end "secret earmarks"
required die-hard tactics from a group of congressional stalwarts
who were willing to take heat and ridicule from some of their
colleagues. Members of the House Republican Study Committee led the
way with days of delaying tactics and a series of floor speeches to
spotlight the issue.
media strategy brought national attention. The result was success
in bringing openness to how taxpayers' money is used, but fixing
Congress's rules on earmarks is not the same as ending earmarks or
ending wasteful spending in general. That fight is just
The fight was over
a simple issue: whether taxpayers can find out in advance how
Congress plans to spend their money.
The fight was
necessary because Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey
(D-WI) had announced that he would decide how billions of dollars
would be spent on special projects-but not until after the House of
Representatives approved each of 12 spending bills. The money to
finance those projects was being included in those bills, tucked
into what were derided as "secret slush funds."
Pork had become
conflicted with House reforms, pushed by his fellow Democrats and
adopted earlier this year, that require all earmarks to be listed in
each bill by item and amount, with full disclosure of their
political sponsors. Democrats had understandably boasted about this
reform when they enacted it in January, yet they supported Obey's
decision that the Appropriations Committee would not follow the new
In response, the
Republicans rebelled. Their parliamentary delays kept the House in
session until the wee hours of the morning, night after night,
until leadership agreed to honor the new rules and block
last-second earmarks from being injected during House-Senate
Not every earmark
is a "Bridge to Nowhere." Though many special projects are
worthwhile, that does not necessarily make them a proper use of
federal taxpayers' money, especially when the times demand that
spending be curtailed.
The public senses
this, but Congress has not changed its ways to match that
sentiment. Members of both parties still send out "good news" press
releases when they bring home the bacon. That may be one reason why
the gap between Congress and the public is widening: The latest
Gallup Poll shows that Americans' approval of Congress has dropped
to an all-time low of 14 percent.
popularity of earmarks is proven by the more than 32,000 requests
for them submitted to Chairman Obey's office from the 435 Members
of the House. The White House calculates that
congressional earmarks now total almost $20 billion each year.
But attitudes may
be changing. Some in Congress have announced that they don't seek
earmarks (or won't in the future). Some brag about their earmarks.
Others have a high level of skittishness. Many who have promoted a
transparent earmark process to keep the public informed recently
refused to publicize their own spending requests when cable network
CNN asked them to do so.
candidates are speaking out against pork. New Mexico Governor Bill
Richardson told a national debate audience, "I would get rid of the
close to $30 billion in earmarks that Congress does." When
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) learned that fellow candidate Senator
Hillary Clinton (D-NY) had added almost $150 million in special
requests to a defense bill, he announced that he would fight to
remove them-an unusual promise in the punctiliously collegial
Representative Obey has denounced them, telling the House, "I hate
earmarks…because they suck everybody in. They suck them into
the idea that we have to be ATM machines for our districts, and so
they focus on the tiny portion of most bills that are earmarks
instead of focusing on the policy that is represented by the
against secret earmarks will not directly affect Congress's
spending behavior. All that Republicans won is the chance to save
billions by allowing public scrutiny of earmarks. So far, not a
penny has actually been saved, but now any Member can challenge any
earmark on the House floor-and force colleagues to vote for or
against each project.
Not all of the
Members who fought for openness will necessarily oppose the actual
earmarks, because they know that if they block someone else's
project, he may gang up with others to kill theirs. Most Members
see the recent clashes as concerning the scale and secretiveness of
earmarks, rather than the continuation or abolition of earmarking
altogether. Nor has the Bush Administration adopted abolition as
its goal. There will, however, be a showdown on earmarks this
coincidentally, the While House's $20 billion estimate of
congressional earmarks nearly matches the difference between
President Bush's proposed fiscal year 2008 budget and Congress's
budget resolution. Eliminating earmarks and their funding
this year (as was done for FY 2007 due to controversies),
would close that gap and might change President Bush's announced
plan to veto most of the appropriations bills because they exceed
The prospect of
eliminating earmarks for a second straight year is an unlikely one,
however. While Democrats have announced plans to cut earmarks in
half, as a Washington Post headline put it, "In the Democratic
Congress, Pork Still Gets Served."
Appropriations Chairman Obey has launched a counterattack on the
White House. Accompanying each appropriations bill is a list of
"White House earmarks"-projects that are itemized in the Bush
budget proposal. A White House spokesman gave a two-part
President does not oppose all earmarks, just those that are secret,
excessive, or otherwise wasteful or improper.
Second, "It is
unfair to compare earmark requests made by the President with
requests made by Members of Congress because the projects Bush asks
for undergo a rigorous review process that does not apply to
This battle will
not be strictly partisan, because the earmark problem is
bipartisan. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), ranking Republican on
the Budget Committee, admitted his party's complicity in
earmarking: "Under the Republican majority, earmarks got out of
control. Under the Republican majority, waste occurred."
He's right. As I
know from being part of the problem during my years in Congress,
only if those involved will reverse course can things be fixed.
There are signs that the GOP is trying to do that, yet it is easy
to look good by comparison when the majority tries to throw money
at most issues.
One sign that
Republicans want to return to their fiscally conservative roots is
the letter signed by 147 of the GOP House Members-one more than
needed to sustain a veto-telling President Bush that they will
uphold his vetoes of most of the spending bills. (It is expected
that he will veto nine of the 12 bills.) Representative John
Campbell (R-CA) led the effort to recruit signers for the
President Bush set
the stage for this fiscal battle in his State of the Union
Address, resurrecting a clear goal that's been
lacking for too long in Washington: Don't just reduce the deficit,
but balance the budget, and do it without raising taxes.
Moving toward a
balanced budget without raising taxes requires that Congress focus
funds on the most pressing priorities while resisting other
requests, such as the states' growing thirst for federal dollars.
For example, despite having billions in unspent federal grants to
states and cities to improve homeland security, states balk at
enforcing security standards such as Real ID, claiming that they
are not getting enough money from Congress. And the House of
Representatives recently approved a measure promoted to hire 50,000
more policemen in America's cities-paid for by federal funds.
health care, transportation, law enforcement, economic development,
and another areas, states increasingly expect Washington to pick up
the tab for their ever-growing requests. But state governments
cannot plead poverty; they're enjoying their best financial
condition in many a year, aided in large part by economic growth
that followed tax cuts in Washington.
Will Washington get
serious about controlling spending? Earmarks are not the only
contributor to out-of-control spending, or even the leading
contributor, but they are a leading indicator of whether progress
will be made.
The real test for
Congress begins now: As earmarks now come up for votes, thanks to
the House's new rules, will they be whittled down to size or not?
Will spending bills pass or fail because of pork or because of
This isn't just
another Washington dogfight; it is about the fundamental question
of how Washington spends Americans' money, both now and in the
future. Winning the fight over disclosure did not win the game, but
it did set the rules for it. Elimination of earmarks is not
possible because of Congress's constitutional role in spending, but
lawmakers should show that they are serious about fiscal discipline
by combining openness with dramatic reductions in earmarks and
their funding. If they do not, the President should deploy his veto
Istook, now Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage
Foundation, served in Congress and on the House Appropriations
Committee for 14 years.
 During the last
week of June 2007, CNN reported this story: "Since Monday, CNN has
called-or tried to call-all 100 senators, asking them if they would
release their 2008 earmark requests. More often then not, calls
were immediately sent to voice mail and never returned. Only six
senators gave us their requests and six said they made no earmark
requests. Eighteen said they would not give us their requests and
70 did not return calls. Last week, of 435 members of the House of
Representatives, 312 did not respond to our requests. Of the
remainder, 47 gave us their requests, 68 said they would not and
six said they had not made earmark requests." Drew Griffin and
Kathleen Johnston, "Like House Colleagues, Senators Keep Earmarks
Quiet," CNN, June 29, 2007, at www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/06/29/senate.