Robert Novak

Incredibly, page 336 of the bill's conference report says that under the new House rule purportedly revealing sponsors of earmarks, there were zero earmarks in this year's Defense money bill. That suggests the transparency rule is as big a sham as its critics have claimed.

The rule's biggest loophole restricts earmarks to "non-federal" spending, which would absolve the larcenous former Congressman Duke Cunningham from earmarking. By definition, all Defense expenditures are "federal." But in reality, many such appropriations end up in the hands of a private beneficiary. Thus, $4.6 million in the current bill goes to the Army Center of Excellence in Acoustics at the Jamie Whitten Center (named for a legendary congressional porker) at the University of Mississippi.

Despite the plethora of unwanted expenditures, President Bush on Sept. 29 signed the Defense bill because its overall spending is within his budget. But it requires transferring funds from needed military programs to politicians' pet projects. The $5.5 million for an unrequested telescope at the Air Force Academy may come from money for night-vision combat goggles.

Clueless Republicans are personified by Sen. Conrad Burns, trailing for re-election in Montana. Burns said opposition to all earmarks by his Democratic opponent, State Sen. Jon Tester, "showed us how reckless and out of touch he is." Burns then issued a press release listing over $775 million of his earmarks, including more than $60 million for the Fort Peck Fish Hatchery.

Tom Coburn, backed in the Senate by a few Republicans and one or two Democrats, is not giving up on earmarks. He will press his Defense report card as a freestanding bill in the lame-duck session. No matter who controls the Senate next year, Coburn will not grant unanimous consent on spending measures and thus require 60 votes to end debate. The question is whether Republican leaders, perhaps chastened by election returns, will join him.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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