A Tale of Two Chambers: The House

A Tale of Two Chambers: The House

Budget & Tax  | Quick Takes
Aug 31, 2007  | 4 min read

The new congressional leadership made earmark reform and transparency a top priority. Now that we are deep into this legislative session, it’s a good time to look at what has actually happened and what it means for American taxpayers. This week we look at the House.

First, let’s give credit where credit is due: no Congress has ever provided the volume of information on earmarks that the House provided this year. The past four years, TCS had to dig through bills, committee reports, the Congressional record, and press releases to put together earmark databases. This year, however, we had an earmark analysis up before the final vote on almost every bill, aided by the charts and lists Congress provided under the new transparency rules.

That said there is a long way to go on the road to transparency. The process of figuring out who is spending our money on what is still too much like a scavenger hunt.

Each appropriations subcommittee disclosed its relevant earmark information in a slightly different format. The subcommittees also made it hard to match member to earmark by listing the earmark projects and dollar amounts in one spot and the earmark requesters in an entirely separate spot. Most subcommittees also took the process one step further, by organizing one list alphabetically by project name and the other list alphabetically by member name. Finally, the request letters for the earmarks in the bill were provided, as required, but they came in large tomes available only at the committee offices, instead of in an easy to navigate and easily accessible online format.

The changes made this year provide a welcome window in to earmarking practices, but it’s a dirty window. There is still a lot we can’t see.

The House also deserves credit for meeting its promise to halve the number and dollar amount of earmarks. To date, the House has put more than 7,000 earmarks worth $11.2 billion into this year’s spending bills — much less than the high watermark of more than 15,000 in 2005 but more than the 3,000 in 1996. Although we still haven’t seen earmark lists for the House’s Homeland Security and Military Construction/Veteran’s Affairs spending bills, what we’ve seen in the other house bills has exceeded our expectations. In January, no one believed the House would actually cut earmarks in half. But so far, so good.

Amid the progress at reigning in earmarks, however, there is continuing evidence that merit and need are not driving where the dollars are going. Seven lawmakers in leadership positions garnered 9% of the earmarks. Of the $8.5 billion in disclosed earmarks, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO), Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-WI), Ranking Member Jerry Lewis (R-CA), Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha (D-PA) and Ranking Member C.W. “Bill” Young (R-FL) directed $776.4 million in earmarks. If they want us to believe this spending is in the best interest of the entire nation, and not to benefit the parochial interests of a few members, they need to show us more of how these decisions are made.

There’s still a lot to play out in the appropriations process.  So far, the Senate doesn’t look like it is following the House crash diet on earmarks.  We hope the House will keep its resolve to rein in earmarks when the two sets of bills come together in conference.   

Next week: The Senate .