Nothing highlighted Congress's spending problem in last year's election more than earmarks, the special projects like Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere" that members drop into last-minute conference reports leaving no opportunity to debate or amend them. Voters opted for change in Congress, but on earmarks it looks as if they'll only be getting more smoke and mirrors.
Democrats promised reform and instituted "a moratorium" on all earmarks until the system was cleaned up. Now the appropriations committees are privately accepting pork-barrel requests again. But curiously, the scorekeeper on earmarks, the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service (CRS) — a publicly funded, nonpartisan federal agency — has suddenly announced it will no longer respond to requests from members of Congress on the size, number or background of earmarks. "They claim it'll be transparent, but they're taking away the very data that lets us know what's really happening," says Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. "I'm convinced the appropriations committees are flexing their muscles with CRS."
Indeed, the shift in CRS policy represents a dramatic break with its 12-year practice of supplying members with earmark data. "CRS will no longer identify earmarks for individual programs, activities, entities, or individuals," stated a private Feb. 22 directive from CRS Director Daniel Mulhollan.
When Sen. Coburn and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina submitted earmark inquiries recently, they were both turned down. Each then had heated conversations with Mr. Mulhollan. The director, who declined to be interviewed for this article, explained that because the appropriations committees and the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) were now preparing their own lists of earmarks, CRS should no longer play a role in the process. He also noted that both the House and Senate are preparing their own definitions of earmarks. "It is not appropriate for us to continue our research," his directive states.
That is sophistry. The House rule making earmarks public, which was passed in January, doesn't apply to earmarks for fiscal year 2007, the year Mr. Coburn wanted his report on. There is no Senate rule, and a proposed statute defining earmarks hasn't become law. OMB's list of earmarks applies only to fiscal year 2005.
And in any case, CRS works for Congress, so it is bizarre for it to claim work being done by the executive branch as a reason to deny members information it was happy to collect and release in the past. When I asked a CRS official if the new policy stemmed from complaints by appropriations committee members, she refused to answer the question, citing "confidentiality" concerns.
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