On Sept. 17, 1787, 39 of the original 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the document that would eventually become our Constitution. In 2005, Congress passed a law designating today as Constitution Day and directed all educational institutions receiving federal funds to honor the day by holding “an educational program on the United States Constitution.” The Senate probably does not consider itself an “educational institution” but a fight over earmarks in the defense authorization bill offers an excellent chance for lawmakers to educate themselves about the principles behind our founding document.

Yesterday the Senate voted to limit debate on the $612.5 billion defense bill, setting up a vote on final passage scheduled for later this evening. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the bill this April along with a staff-authored committee report containing $5 billion worth of earmarks benefiting a bipartisan group of senators. The bill itself does not contain any of the earmarks. Instead, it contains language referencing the staff-authored committee report and makes clear the report should be considered part of the legislation. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) has written an amendment that strikes that language from the bill.

The DeMint amendment is about more than one defense authorization bill. At issue is whether the Senate will continue an unconstitutional practice that encourages corruption and secrecy, or whether lawmakers will return to the transparency and accountability that the Constitution requires. Consider this famous 1982 exchange between Sens. William Armstrong (R-CO) and Bob Dole (R-KS):

Mr. ARMSTRONG. Mr. President, will the Senator tell me whether or not he wrote the committee report?
Mr. DOLE. Did I write the committee report?
Mr. DOLE. No; the Senator from Kansas did not write the committee report. …
Mr. ARMSTRONG. Mr. President, has the Senator from Kansas, the chairman of the Finance Committee, read the committee report in its entirety?
Mr. DOLE. I am working on it. It is not a bestseller, but I am working on it.
Mr. ARMSTRONG. Mr. President, did members of the Finance Committee vote on the committee report?
Mr. DOLE. No.
Mr. ARMSTRONG. Mr. President, the reason I raise the issue is not perhaps apparent on the surface, and let me just state it: … The report itself is not considered by the Committee on Finance. It was not subject to amendment by the Committee on Finance. It is not subject to amendment now by the Senate. … If there were matter within this report which was disagreed to by the Senator from Colorado or even by a majority of all Senators, there would be no way for us to change the report. I could not offer an amendment tonight to amend the committee report.

Article I, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution states: “Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States.” As the exchange above demonstrates, committee reports, at best, reflect the views of a particular committee, not Congress as a whole. Granting committee reports the force of law prevents Congress from debating and voting on earmarks in the open. Instead, earmarks are set by lobbyists and staffers in dark backroom deals. Allowing this practice to continue is a direct assault on the Constitution and the values of transparency and accountability it embodies.

The American people deserve better than this. The American people are demanding change in Washington. That change is not going to emanate from closed backrooms of the Senate. If Congress wants to make specific, detailed spending recommendations to the president, it should do so only after full and open debate. The earmarking free-for-all must end.

Quick Hits: