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Congress Struggles to Settle on Earmarks

June 15, 2007 at 6:25 PM EST
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REP. JOSE SERRANO (D), New York: So let’s get it clear. Yes, there is a deficit, but this bill doesn’t cause a deficit.

KWAME HOLMAN: This week, House Democrats brought out their own spending priorities for the first time in 12 years. House Republicans made sure Democrats also brought with them their pledge to make it a fair and transparent process.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), Speaker of the House: We will make this the most honest, ethical, and open Congress in history.

KWAME HOLMAN: Following the November elections, soon-to-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised full disclosure of all earmarks, special spending projects that lawmakers traditionally tucked into appropriations and other bills unnoticed. Abuse of that practice is what sent Randy “Duke” Cunningham to prison. The California congressman had inserted millions of dollars in military contracts in exchange for bribes.

REP. DAVID OBEY (D), Chair, Committee on Appropriations: I should make clear what is happening here and what is not happening here.

Making earmarks transparent

KWAME HOLMAN: But when Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey brought the first of 12 2008 spending bills to the House floor Tuesday, the $37 billion homeland security bill, not one earmark was listed. Obey said he had received 32,000 earmark requests from members and didn't have time to vet them all. Those that made the cut, he said, would be listed in the bill at a later date, after the House had approved it.

Republicans were incensed.

REP. JEB HENSARLING (R), Texas: And so the new majority that promised us earmark reform is now telling us that they're going to do something completely opposite.

REP. JOHN SHADEGG (R), Arizona: You cannot take the process for disclosing earmarks and make those earmarks public after the bill has been debated. There is not a constituent of yours that believes that makes sense.

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R), Tennessee: They know that this is hypocrisy. They know that people are trying to skirt around the edges.

Arguing for taxpayers' rights

KWAME HOLMAN: Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), Wisconsin: Many people like myself have been fighting this kind of a system. I think this is something that taxpayers ought to see in the light of day, members of Congress ought to be able to vote on, and we ought to be able to scrutinize each individual project on its own merits so that we can decide whether it's a legitimate use of taxpayer funds or just pork barrel spending.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ryan and his Republican colleagues kept the House working into early Wednesday morning, introducing amendments -- dozens of them -- designed to stall the process and frustrate Democrats.

REP. DAVID OBEY: It is clear to me that they have only one purpose: to bring this House to a halt. But we're going to stay here until the job is done. This is the people's business. We're not going to be diverted by their trying to play Trivial Pursuit on this bill...

Reaching a compromise

KWAME HOLMAN: Obey loudly charged Republicans never made earmark requests public during their time in the majority. He said members would get the list of the earmarks he approved, including the names of the lawmakers who requested them, in August.

REP. DAVID OBEY: There will be an opportunity ahead of time to know who has asked for these earmarks, and you'll be able to ask questions about it.

KWAME HOLMAN: However, Republicans wouldn't relent.

REP. VIRGINIA FOXX (R), North Carolina: We intend to use the opportunity available to us to offer amendments every chance we get them.

KWAME HOLMAN: And after two days at a snail's pace, House action on the homeland security bill was shelved while Democratic and Republican leaders scrambled to find a way ahead.

Finally, late yesterday, agreement was reached. Chairman Obey promised to list all earmarks in future spending bills ahead of floor action. In exchange, Republicans agreed to let the first two bills, for homeland security and military construction, move ahead without interruption. Both sides claimed victory.

REP. PAUL RYAN: Not only for, you know, Republicans who care about earmark reform, but for taxpayers. The whole idea of earmark reform is to bring more transparency and accountability to the way we spend taxpayer dollars.


Making changes in the House

KWAME HOLMAN: But Illinois' Democrat Rahm Emanuel argued it was the Republicans who had come around.

REP. RAHM EMANUEL (D), Illinois: I think that what's most important is the very people who all of a sudden have found their voice, proved the old adage in Washington, "Their opinions that are firm, it's their principles they're flexible on." They refused to ever make any of these changes in the past.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Appropriations Committee staff reportedly is working seven-day weeks in order to determine which of the thousands of earmark requests should be included in the final spending bills.