Articles

The Earmark Ban's Progress

Washington, May 19 | Jim Billimoria, Justin Harclerode (202) 225-9446 | comments
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A water bill shows what happens when Congress has to set priorities.

Congressional cries to restore earmarks are mounting, and a new favorite argument is that the spenders need the pork authority to properly exercise their Constitutional power of the purse. But if you look at what's happening inside Congress, the opposite is true: The earmark ban is producing more spending accountability and oversight.

Consider the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which is scheduled for a House vote Tuesday. Water spending bills in the recent past were earmarking extravaganzas. The Army Corps of Engineers would recommend the most pressing water needs. Congress would ignore those and focus spending on hundreds of Member projects.

When Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin now pines for the days when earmarks were the "glue" holding bills together, what he's really missing is leadership's power to dole out home-state patronage. Pork-barrel Republicans who say the earmark ban has transferred spending power to the President are excusing their own unwillingness to set priorities.

Remarkable to behold, something like priority-setting has happened in the current water bill, the first to go through Congress since the 2011 earmark ban. Under the process established by Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, the Army Corps publishes a federal notice requesting water proposals from non-federal entities.

The Corps reviews them and sends an annual public report to Congress listing the purpose of each proposal, its purported benefits, statements of support and costs. Congress then chooses which projects to approve. Only those included in the Corps report are eligible for authorization.

This process put House Members in control of spending decisions, even as it required them to choose on the basis of fact and analysis—rather than logrolling. Mr. Shuster and Water Resources Subcommittee Chair Bob Gibbs worked both sides of the aisle to agree on priorities, and the initial bill passed 417-3 in October.

The Senate relied on the Corps to select its water projects and the final cost of $12.3 billion is closer to the Senate's more costly request. Yet every project in the final conference committee bill, released Thursday, was subject to the House vetting process. And the price tag is still far less than the $23 billion porkfest of 2007.

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A water bill shows what happens when Congress has to set priorities.

Congressional cries to restore earmarks are mounting, and a new favorite argument is that the spenders need the pork authority to properly exercise their Constitutional power of the purse. But if you look at what's happening inside Congress, the opposite is true: The earmark ban is producing more spending accountability and oversight.

Consider the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which is scheduled for a House vote Tuesday. Water spending bills in the recent past were earmarking extravaganzas. The Army Corps of Engineers would recommend the most pressing water needs. Congress would ignore those and focus spending on hundreds of Member projects.

When Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin now pines for the days when earmarks were the "glue" holding bills together, what he's really missing is leadership's power to dole out home-state patronage. Pork-barrel Republicans who say the earmark ban has transferred spending power to the President are excusing their own unwillingness to set priorities.

Remarkable to behold, something like priority-setting has happened in the current water bill, the first to go through Congress since the 2011 earmark ban. Under the process established by Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, the Army Corps publishes a federal notice requesting water proposals from non-federal entities.

The Corps reviews them and sends an annual public report to Congress listing the purpose of each proposal, its purported benefits, statements of support and costs. Congress then chooses which projects to approve. Only those included in the Corps report are eligible for authorization.

This process put House Members in control of spending decisions, even as it required them to choose on the basis of fact and analysis—rather than logrolling. Mr. Shuster and Water Resources Subcommittee Chair Bob Gibbs worked both sides of the aisle to agree on priorities, and the initial bill passed 417-3 in October.

The Senate relied on the Corps to select its water projects and the final cost of $12.3 billion is closer to the Senate's more costly request. Yet every project in the final conference committee bill, released Thursday, was subject to the House vetting process. And the price tag is still far less than the $23 billion porkfest of 2007.

The 34 authorized projects will go to high-priority projects around the country—including dredging a waterway that serves refineries in Louisiana and Texas; expanding the busy port of Savannah; and beginning important flood-management in California, North Dakota and Minnesota. The bill also eliminates unnecessary and outdated projects that resulted from past earmarking. The quality of the new projects is light years better than the every-Member-gets-his-own standard that developed under former GOP leader Tom DeLay.

Anything Congress does involves political trade-offs and no doubt there was some deal-making here. But Speaker John Boehner says the House won't return to earmark "nonsense," and that's encouraging. Rather than follow Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's call to return to the pork-addled past, Congress ought to make this water bill a standard for future spending.

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