Earmark reform is a hot topic inside the beltway. Republicans, after six years of busting the budget, increased the use of earmarks to unprecedented levels during their reign. For example, the Labor Health and Human Services bill went from having very few earmarks in 1995, to containing $1.2 billion in 2006. These same Republicans, now the minority in Congress, are trying to portray themselves as the true defenders of the purse, disparaging Democrats as we seek to install new transparency rules making this the most open Congress in history. The American public won’t be that easily fooled.
Now let me be clear, as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee which drafts the annual federal spending bills, I am a supporter of earmarks. For the uninitiated, an earmark is congressionally directed funding for a specific project. Examples of recent earmarks I obtained for Falls Church include $2 million for the new downtown transportation center and $1 million for the Tahirih Justice Center, which assists women refugees fleeing persecution.
But as a strong supporter of congressionally directed spending, I am in full favor of bringing greater transparency to the earmarking process. Clearly, the U.S. taxpayer should be able to see what their money is being spent on and who is directing its expenditure. Transparency also acts as a safeguard against fiscal abuse, requiring the member who submits the project to stand by his or her request.
Under the new rules adopted by the new Democratic Congress, members are now required to disclose in writing, the name and address of the intended earmark recipient, the purpose of the earmark and a certification that the member or their spouse have no financial interest in the earmark request. In the past, this information did not exist and was impossible to determine unless a member made the earmark public in a press release.
To those concerned about earmarks in general, I would just point out the fact that every dollar spent by the federal government is earmarked; it’s just a question of who’s doing the earmarking — Congress or the White House. I recall vividly when, as a budget director for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and the Workforce under the Nixon Administration, we were constantly forced to direct federal dollars based more on politics than policy.
Not much has changed in the past 30 years. One need only look at how the Bush Administration doled out homeland security funds in 2006. Omaha, Nebraska, Louisville, Kentucky and other smaller localities across the country saw their anti-terror funds surge, despite being a low target for terrorism. In the process, ground zero on September 11 — the National Capital Region and NYC – was shortchanged to the tune of $120 million.
In addition to these changes in the way Congress earmarks, we have also enacted stringent new ethics rules. These tough new rules include a ban on gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists. Lobbyists must now disclose any contributions to lawmakers online, in a searchable database. And any member convicted of corruption would be denied their taxpayer-funded pension benefits.
The Democratic Congress is committed to reform and strives to hold the highest standards of transparency and ethics in the institution’s history. It was a promise made to the American people and one that we intend to keep.