NPR logo Congress' Earmark Battle Heats Up As Both Parties Claim High Ground

Congress' Earmark Battle Heats Up As Both Parties Claim High Ground

In Washington, the partisan war is fought on many fronts.

One of the most active this week has been the fight over earmarks, the directed spending benefiting particular entities that lawmakers often include in spending legislation.

On Thursday, House Republicans announced what they called a unilateral moratorium on all earmarks. It was an attempt to raise the ante after the House's Democratic leadership announced Wednesday a ban on all earmarks to for-profit corporations.

In a statement, House Minority Leader John Boehner said:

"For millions of Americans, the earmark process in Congress has become a symbol of a broken Washington. Today House Republicans took an important step toward showing the American people we're serious about reform by adopting an immediate, unilateral ban on all earmarks. But the more difficult battle lies ahead, and that's stopping the spending spree in Washington that is saddling our children and grandchildren with trillions of dollars in debt. Only then will we have succeeded in bringing fundamental change to the way Congress spends taxpayers' money."

Again, this was an attempt to outdo Democrats who only banned earmarks that would go to for-profit companies. It was also part of Republicans' continued effort to once again be perceived as the party of fiscal restraint.

Democrats took their shot at Republicans on Wednesday when House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey issued a fact sheet that clearly positioned Democrats as the party of earmark reform and Republicans as the party of earmark abuses.

Prior to 1994, earmarks were largely confined to a handful of appropriations bills, like the Military
Construction bill, that by their very nature are heavily earmarked because, by definition, those bills assign dollars to specific projects. That is what those bills do. They represent agreements between the executive and legislative branches about which specific construction projects will go forward. Earmarks exploded when the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives in 1994.

Among the reforms Obey claimed for Democrats:

* This year, the House Appropriations Committee announced that it will not approve requests for earmarks that are directed to for-profit entities, and agency Inspectors General will be required to audit at least 5% of all earmarks directed to non-profit entities. Additionally, an online "one-stop" link to all House Members' appropriations earmark requests will be established to help the public easily view them.

The key thing to keep in mind is that all this anti-earmark action is taking place in the House. The Senate, where some of the kings of congressional earmarks reside (think Sen. Robert Byrd) is a lot less receptive to tying their hands in this way.

Still, advocates for more accountability in government spending, like what they're seeing. An excerpt from a Taxpayers for Commonsense analysis:

Both the ban on for-profit earmarks and the moratorium are significant steps in the direction of major earmark reform. It is unclear how the House Democrats will respond to the move by the House Republicans. But key Senators, like Appropriations Chairman Inouye (D-HI), are already on the record saying that the ban on for-profit earmarks is bad, so it's hard to see them warming to the moratorium. If the Senate ignores common sense and real reform, the President needs to step in, use his bully pulpit and wave the veto pen at bills larded up with earmarks.