Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson January 8, 2013

GOP approved earmark ban for 112th Congress and re-upped for 113th

Over the years, reformers from both parties have taken aim at earmarks -- the items included by Members of Congress in large spending bills. Shortly after their victory in the 2010 midterm elections, the House Republican Conference approved an earmark ban for the 112th Congress. Since the majority in the House effectively runs how the chamber operates, this ban essentially governed all bills generated in the House.

Approval of the earmark ban kept the House GOP's campaign promise to refuse to "consider House legislation that includes earmarks."

However, in our previous update, we said we would reserve judgment before awarding a Promise Kept to make sure that no pseudo-earmarks slipped in.

Steve Ellis, a critic of earmarks and vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said he's "fairly certain” that the House "didn't take up legislation with earmarks. One could quibble whether some things are or are not earmarks -- and we do -- but by their standard, they didn't take up legislation with earmarks.”

Equally important, during the November 2012 organizational meetings for the upcoming 113th Congress, GOP leaders stopped an effort backed by some in their conference to reinstate earmarks, at least in a limited way.

Prior to the organizational meeting, the congressional newspaper Roll Call reported that Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, was planning to offer an amendment that would have allowed earmarks under certain circumstances, such as when the recipient was a unit of local government. Young is well known for having championed a $223 million earmark in 2005 to build the controversial "Bridge to Nowhere” in his home state.

But Young eventually withdrew the amendment "under pressure from Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who had made his opposition to the measure clear,” according to the Hill, another congressional newspaper. The newspaper quoted a source close to Boehner saying that "clear opposition in the room” helped push Young away from offering the amendment.

While defining an earmark remains a complicated matter, we think the House Republicans have kept to the spirit of their earmark ban, and their decision to continue the ban into the next Congress only reinforces that. We rate this a Promise Kept.

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan June 9, 2011

Does the defense authorization bill contain earmarks? Maybe!

During the 2010 campaign, House Republicans promised they wouldn't consider any legislation that had earmarks, and they introduced rules for it once they took power.

What are earmarks? Earmarks are special requests from lawmakers that direct money to be spent in specific ways, usually to the benefit of a company or constituency within the lawmaker's home district. They are often attached to a broad funding bill so that the only way to oppose them is to vote the bill down and stall the budgeting process. Critics have long argued that earmarks are likelier to serve special interests rather than the national good.

So according to the House's own rules, there were to be no earmarks in the defense authorization that the House of Representatives approved on May 26.

But were there?

The answer isn't clear-cut, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent group that monitors legislation for earmarks.

When lawmakers were crafting the bill, they ended up creating a $1 billion fund for the Department of Defense called the Mission Force Enhancement Transfer Fund. The idea is that the Department of Defense could use that money for unexpected costs in the coming year.

But lawmakers also passed their own series of amendments for specific defense goals, and they said the source of funding for the amendments would be the Mission Force Enhancement Transfer Fund.

Some of those amendments supported goals that happened to be very similar to earmarks approved in previous years.

Taxpayers for Common Sense cited two examples on its website. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., for example, supported an amendment for night vision advanced technology. In fiscal year 2010, Hunter got a $2.4 million earmark that went to Trex Enterprises for "Brownout Situational Awareness Sensors.” Similarly, Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., pushed an amendment for terrorism  "risk assessment and resource allocation.” In 2010, Brady got $2 million for the Foreign Research Institute's Center on Terrorism & Counter-Terrorism in Philadelphia for "Comprehensive and Integrated Procedures for Risk Assessment and Resource Allocation.”

Only time will tell if the amendments are a clever way to get around the ban on earmarks, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It won't be clear until the budget is done and the Pentagon allocates the funding,” Ellis said. "We're still concerned that these may shake out to be defacto earmarks, but we'll see.”

"To be sure, we aren't yet back in the bad old go-go years of earmarking. But instead of moving the country to a system where every dollar spending decision is based on merit, we are seeing some of Congress' bad habits creeping back,” said the group in a statement on its website.

A committee spokesman said the fund did not represent a return to earmarks but simply allowed members of Congress to have an appropriate say in defense spending policy.

Republicans have also defended the amendments for two reasons: the amendments support overall military goals, and they allow for the Defense Department to be able to go through a competitive process.

Clearly, it's too soon to give this promise a definitive ruling. For us, the question is whether to rate the promise In the Works or Stalled. If only we had a ruling called "In the Works, with a Few Suspicions.” Because there are questions about whether the amendments could become defacto earmarks, we're going to rate this promise Stalled for now. The Senate still needs to pass the defense authorization, and then we'll have to see how the Defense Department spends the money before we issue our final ruling.

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