February 6, 2008 in Opinion

Under-the-radar spending

Sacramento Bee The Spokesman-Review

The following editorial appeared Sunday in the Sacramento Bee.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush promised “unprecedented” reform of congressional earmarking. That’s the practice through which members of Congress sneak in pork-barrel spending projects that have never received a hearing, never been debated and are not in the text of a bill.

Bush has signed an executive order instructing federal agencies to ignore all earmarks that are not in the text of a law. That’s fine; Congress should debate these projects in the open and hold a public vote. But this effort comes a little late in his presidency. It was also more than a bit lame, considering that it won’t take effect until October 2009, months after he leaves office.

Earmarking is hardly new, but the real problems with the practice were ushered in by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, after Republicans took control of the House in 1994. According to the Congressional Research Service, earmarks that year totaled 4,100. By 2000, they had risen to 6,100.

But it was during the Bush era, with Congress and the presidency in the hands of one party, that earmarks really got out of hand. By 2002, earmarks totaled 10,500, rising to a record 15,500 by 2006, more than tripling since 1994.

What changed? In addition to the traditional practice of steering earmarks to home districts, members of Congress targeted projects to out-of-district lobbyists and private firms that contributed to their political campaigns.

Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., is an example. After San Diego defense contractor Brent Wilkes organized fundraisers and contributions, Doolittle helped win $37 million in earmarks from 2002 to 2005 for Wilkes’ firm for technology the Defense Department hadn’t requested. This had no benefit for constituents of Doolittle’s district.

In some cases, this practice edged into bribery. Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., was convicted of taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in exchange for inserting earmarks into bills.

When Democrats won the House majority in 2006, they promised reform. They eliminated about 10,000 earmarks that had been proposed by the previous Congress for the 2007 budget. But that welcome change is proving short-lived. While earmarks dipped to 2,700 in 2007, they’re getting out of hand again – rising to 11,700 for the 2008 budget year. And Democrats are using loopholes to flout the spirit of new rules that are supposed to require earmarks to be in appropriation bills and open to challenge on the floor.

It is lack of public scrutiny and debate that allows stealth spending projects to divert money from real budget priorities to low-priority earmarks. The public will have to demand that Congress reverse this return to business as usual. Bush’s action comes too late to have much effect.

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