Pay No Attention to Those Earmarks

March 27th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

According to a column in the Wall Street Journal Congress, in its wisdom, has decided to prohibit the ability of its Congressional Research Service (CRS) to publish reports documenting congressional earmarks, or targeted spending inserted in appropriations bills (aka “pork-barrel spending”). This is a bad decision.

The thinking in Congress must be that if they don’t report the existence of earmarks then no one will know what is going on. As has been documented time and again here we see an effort to shape political outcomes by manipulating the availability of information. In this case the incentives are not partisan, but institutional, as members of both political parties in Congress have a shared incentive to keep earmarks out of the public eye. Earmarks are often associated with irresponsible public spending (e.g., the Alaska “bridge to nowhere”) and are especially problematic in the R&D enterprise, as I’ve discussed here previously.

Congress is doing the public a disservice by seeking to aggressively limit information on spending that it makes available to the public. This behavior is likely to be counterproductive when at the same time several Congress committees are conducting useful investigations of the Executive branch’s heavy-handed information management strategies. In general, openness and transparency are good principles, and that is the case here as well.

Here is an excerpt from the WSJ column:

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. . .

Today squeeze plays on CRS are not uncommon, and they have come from both parties. In the 1990s, GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey was so angry with a CRS report questioning the workability of a flat tax that he temporarily zeroed out the agency’s budget. Rep. Henry Waxman, as a member of a Democratic minority, demanded and got revisions to CRS reports on how prescription drug pricing rules in his bills would work. “Everyone expects Waxman and others to be even more insistent on getting what they want now [that he's in the majority],” says another CRS staffer.

2 Responses to “Pay No Attention to Those Earmarks”

  1. Harry Haymuss Says:

    Just another symptom of the fact there is really only one political party in the U.S. – with two faces. Who was it that said to beware of the “two party” system? My link seems to have vanished.

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  3. David Bruggeman Says:

    It’s the extension of a very odd trend of CRS top brass to restrict distribution of CRS reports at all. The only reason I got my hands on a copy of their climate change report is that the Federation of American Scientists posted it as part of their occasional releases from CRS. Their reports are damn hard to find otherwise. The Service is now requiring prior approval for their own employees to hand out reports to the public.

    If I didn’t work in Washington, it might boggle my mind.