Robert Bluey

Long before many Americans paid attention to pork-barrel spending, the Congressional Research Service did. The legislative agency, tasked with producing reports for members of Congress, monitored the rapid rise of earmarks for 12 years, beginning when Republicans swept into power in 1995.

But a new day has dawned in Washington. With Democrats at the helm of Congress, CRS has decided it no longer needs to track the pork in spending bills. While the agency has denied any political motive and Democrats have pleaded ignorance, fiscal watchdogs in Congress smell something fishy.

Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, is taking the decision personally. As a frequent user of CRS, Coburn had come to rely on its non-partisan, objective research. He used the CRS earmark reports to shed light on some of the peculiar projects his colleagues secretly stuffed into legislation, often in the dark of night. (Remember that indoor rainforest in Iowa and the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska?)

Now, Coburn is fighting back. He has vowed to introduce an amendment to each spending bill requiring CRS to prepare an analysis of congressional earmarks.

“They [CRS] don’t have a good reason for not doing that, other than the fact that there obviously has been some implied pressure if they continued to do so,” Coburn recently said on Fox News, citing congressional appropriators as the culprits. “That’s something we depend on, and now we don’t have that as a source.”

CRS has said its research is no longer needed because the Office of Management and Budget will track earmarks -- a true statement, except for the fact that its information is nowhere near as comprehensive. CRS also cites new rules adopted by Congress to publicly disclose earmarks. However, the House rule applies only to 2008 spending bills, not previous ones, and the Senate’s rule is still bottled up as part of the Democrats’ stalled ethics reform bill.

As the debate over earmarks drags on, Americans may finally get a close-up look at CRS, a notoriously secretive agency that refuses to share any of its reports with the public -- a policy made not by some government bureaucrat but by members of Congress themselves. Taxpayers, meanwhile, spend more than $100 million per year to fund its research.


Robert Bluey

Robert B. Bluey is director of the Center for Media & Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation and maintains a blog at RobertBluey.com