President Bush’s decision to challenge lawmakers on earmarks comes only days after House Republicans made their own pledge to give up pork projects. At their retreat last Friday in West Virginia, House GOP leaders released a letter calling on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to issue an immediate moratorium on earmarks and to appoint a bipartisan, bicameral joint committee to reform the earmark process and eliminate wasteful spending.
The two moves, while not as aggressive as some conservatives had hoped, refocus attention on an issue that has tarnished the image of Congress and landed appropriators in hot water. This year alone at least six appropriators have announced they will not seek re-election. A handful of others are under federal investigation.
By putting pressure on Pelosi, House Republicans hope to convince the speaker to bring an immediate halt to the earmarking process. Based on some of Pelosi’s previous statements about earmarking, it might not be entirely out of the question. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Pelosi led the way in giving up earmarks. The Heritage Foundation’s Andrew Grossman and Ron Utt wrote at the time:
It is often said that politics makes strange bedfellows, but apparently hurricanes have far stranger effects. On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced that she would offer up $70 million, out of the $129 million in highway bill earmarks that she won for her district, to offset the cost of the Katrina relief effort.
Shortly after Rep. John Boehner was elected House majority leader in 2006, Pelosi and other House Democrats wrote to him expressing their desire to clean up the “culture of corruption.” Among the measures they asked Boehner to adopt were several relating to earmarks:
• Put an end to secret earmarks and earmarks that fund activities in which the author has a financial interest.
• Stop the practice of adding provisions to Conference Reports after the Committee has completed its work.
• End the excessive use of “closed rules” that prevent Members from offering amendments or participating in debate.
• Require that that no legislation, Conference Report, or manager’s amendment will be considered on the floor until all Members, the press and the public have had an opportunity to review its provisions for at least 24 hours.
• Ban gifts, including meals, entertainment, tickets and travel from lobbyists and corporations or organizations that retain or employ them.
• Shut down the K Street project.
It won’t be easy to bring the earmarking process to a halt, even if Pelosi ultimately agrees with Boehner. She indicated today that some of the chatter is merely political posturing on the part of Republicans. In a pre-State of the Union conference call with reporters, she said:
I think Republicans have pulled their punch on earmarks. … It looked like a very lukewarm approach. They want to beat a loud drum, but when it comes down to it, they want their earmarks.
Pelosi clearly thinks Republicans are happy to talk a good game, but unwilling to act. If that’s really the case, then she should bring an immediate halt to the earmarking process. After all, this isn’t a partisan issue. This goes to the heart of how tax dollars are spent and how the favor factory has harmed Washington.
UPDATE — 8:41 p.m.: The Politico reports that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer criticized Republicans for “hypocrisy,” pointing out the number of earmarks soared under GOP control of Congress.