Pork Barrel Stonewall

Posted: Sep 27, 2007 9:18 AM
Pork Barrel Stonewall

House Republicans have launched a renewed effort to change the way Congress spends taxpayers' money. Our goal: Stop Congress from tucking members' pet spending projects into bills without public scrutiny and debate.

Pork-barrel earmarks were an important factor in the loss of the GOP majority last November. Years of irresponsible earmarks, slipped into bills behind closed doors without public debate or scrutiny, eroded Republicans' reputation as the party of fiscal responsibility and trustworthy custodians of taxpayer funds.

I've never made a secret of my distaste for worthless pork. Just a few months after being elected as majority leader last year, we enacted comprehensive reforms that brought the earmark process out into broad daylight. All taxpayer-funded earmarks had to be publicly disclosed and subject to challenge and debate. If you sponsor a project, we argued, you ought to be willing to put your name on it and defend it -- and if not, you shouldn't ask taxpayers to pay for it. These reforms were the right thing to do -- and they still are.

The Democratic majority came to power in January promising to do a better job on earmarks. They appeared to preserve our reforms and even take them a bit further. I commended Democrats publicly for this action.

Unfortunately, the leadership reversed course. Desperate to advance their agenda, they began trading earmarks for votes, dangling taxpayer-funded goodies in front of wavering members to win their support for leadership priorities. The Democrats' retreat began quietly, with passage of a "continuing resolution" in February that contained hidden earmarks. It steadily became more blatant. A troop funding bill was loaded with pork-barrel spending for things like spinach and peanuts -- which one top Democrat publicly conceded was only in the bill to buy votes. Members were denied the ability to challenge individual earmarks on the House floor, stepping back from our original reforms and leaving members with no way to force a floor debate and vote on any earmark, even if it violated the rules or was particularly egregious.

By June, the leadership's dismal retreat culminated in a plan to pass appropriations bills loaded with slush funds for secret earmarks. The plan was met with a torrent of public criticism from voices across the political spectrum, and rightly so. House Republicans rallied to defeat the "secret earmarks" plan. It was a spirited fight: Everyone pitched in, and we fought with an energy found only in legislators who believe in their cause. It was a sign of a Republican Party beginning to return to its roots, breaking with past errors, and reconnecting with its principles. We forced Democrats to abandon their ill-conceived plan.

Now it's time for the next step. In dropping their plans for slush funds for secret earmarks, the Democrats agreed to require disclosure and debate on earmarks in appropriations bills. But this fix did not apply to tax and authorizing bills, which have historically been vehicles for some of the most indefensible earmarks churned out by Congress.

An authorizing bill was recently the vehicle for an illegitimate earmark requested by Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.) that shifted $23 million in taxpayer funds to the so-called National Drug Intelligence Center -- a facility located in Mr. Murtha's district that was declared "expensive and duplicative" by independent government analysts. The Democrats' bill to reauthorize the State Children's Health Insurance Program was loaded up with millions in hospital earmarks that were never debated and never subject to challenge on the House floor.

Under the procedures of the current House leadership, members still cannot force a debate or vote on any earmark in any non-appropriations bill that comes to the floor. This flawed system is ripe for abuse. It steps backward from the reforms Republicans implemented last year and makes a mockery of Democrats' promise to run a more transparent and accountable Congress.

On June 12, I and other GOP leaders introduced legislation that would fully restore our reforms and require all earmarks in all types of bills -- tax, appropriations, or authorizing -- to be publicly disclosed and subject to challenge and open debate on the floor.

Since then I've repeatedly asked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to work with us to correct this loophole, but there has been no action. Left with no other option, I filed a discharge petition in the House to force a vote on our reforms. Once this petition receives 218 member signatures, House rules require the majority to bring it to the House floor for an up-or-down vote.

House Republicans are returning to the fiscally conservative roots that first launched us into the majority in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership appears intent on repeating the same mistakes that helped bring our majority to an end. Fixing the earmark process and using the power of public scrutiny to stop wasteful pork-barrel spending is essential if we are to restore the bonds of trust between the American people and their elected leaders.

This column originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.