Earmark My Word: Boehner Promises House Action This Week

by Dana Chasin, 9/12/2006

Last Thursday, House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) announced the House will take up legislation as soon as this week to overhaul the process allowing individual lawmakers to slip funding for special projects into large appropriations bills.

Earlier this year, Congress seemed sure to address the enormously embarrassing loopholes riddling the nation's lobbying laws and Congress' own lax ethics rules in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff scandal and the resignation of disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA).

"Earmarks" -- lines of funding legislation in appropriations bills that members of Congress designate for specific projects for their districts -- became a dirty word in Washington over the winter, evoking visions of a $250 million "bridge to nowhere," questionable projects bearing the name of a congressional sponsor, and a seamy cash-for-favors culture.

Initial action on lobbying overhaul legislation occurred fairly quickly this year. The Senate acted first, passing the Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006 (S 2349,) on March 29, with the House passing its bill (HR 4975) on May 3. In addition to addressing earmarks, the bills would have clamped down on gifts from lobbyists and required ethics training and more frequent reports by lobbyists on their activities. But after these bills passed both chambers and the Abramoff outcry had quieted, they languished in conference all summer long.

Until late last week, Boehner had sounded notably cagey about the possibility of earmark reform. Yet with Congress nearing the end of its session and elections fast approaching, the unfinished business of lobby reform suddenly looks like a poster child for this do-nothing Congress. Boehner has now reversed course and is now floating a resolution to address earmarks.
Boehner's proposal would establish a new point of order against consideration of a committee report or conference agreement on spending or tax legislation unless earmark sponsors are listed in the report.

This proposal only covers a tiny fraction of the scope of the original reform bills. The change would only apply to committee-reported bills, not new legislative vehicles such as those that carried the pension and "trifecta" measures before the August recess. And, technically, Boehner's proposal would not be a law, but merely a change in the House rules, automatically expiring at the end of the current Congress. Some Republican may be banking, however, that even this small change may be enough to take to voters as proof of their reform bona fides come November.

Boehner's office has said he will take all necessary action to make this a sustained rule and practice in the House. But House appropriators have issued loud protests. In particular, Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) warns that he will oppose any earmarks provision that applies only to the appropriations bills that go through his committee and not to tax and authorizing bills.

Boehner and other GOP leaders have made efforts to broaden the definition of earmarks to the appropriators' satisfaction but it is unclear if the changes will be broad enough to garner Lewis' support.

Another outstanding issue in the House regarding how broadly earmarks are defined was outlined well in an article published by Citizens for Tax Justice:

    House leaders want the rules to treat tax break proposals as earmarks, or as "targeted tax provisions" only if they benefit just one person. As of [September 8], House appropriators are reportedly opposed to this plan because they think it lets the House Ways and Means Committee (which writes the tax proposals) off the hook too easily. But their definition of a "targeted tax provision" that should be considered an earmark is also laughably loose. They reportedly would include any tax break that benefits fewer than a hundred people. So a tax break that benefits only the richest fraction of one percent could never be considered an 'earmark' because it benefits more than a hundred people.

Having gone as far as promising floor action on the earmarks measure this week, Boehner and the House GOP now risk considerable embarrassment should efforts to reach a compromise with Lewis and other appropriators fail. Though limited in both scope and tenure, the House earmarks measure nevertheless would stand as a notable step toward increasing transparency in the budget process.