Dateline: Dec. 8, 2006"Earmark" spending, often the source of massive waste in the federal budget process, would undergo sweeping reform under a proposal being championed by the incoming Chairs of the Senate and House Appropriations Committee, Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) and Representative David Obey (D-Wisconsin, 7th).
With a plan supported by incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D, California, 8th), and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), Byrd and Obey hope to guide Congress in installing reforms to the federal budget process designed to "bring transparency and openness" to earmark spending. Commendable attributes, many would say, when it comes to the annual discretionary expenditure of up to $50 billion in taxpayers' money.
What are earmarks?
Earmarks are funds allocated in the annual federal budget by individual legislators for special projects or purposes of interest to their constituents. Gaining the approval of earmark projects typically helps the sponsoring legislator earn the votes of his or her constituents. Often "tucked" into the larger annual appropriations bills, earmarks often come under criticism as being "rushed through" Congress without the full debate and scrutiny devoted to the larger parent bill.
In addition, earmarks often result in the expenditure of large sums of taxpayer money to help a limited number of people. For example, in 2005, $223 million was earmarked by then Senate Committee on Appropriations chair Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to build a bridge to connect an Alaskan town of 8,900 to an island with a population of 50, saving a short ferry ride. Creating an uncharacteristic uproar in the Senate, the earmark nicknamed "the Bridge to Nowhere," was removed from the spending bill. Unlike the Bridge to Nowhere, many earmarks survive. In 2005, over 15,000 earmarks, costing about $47 billion were approved by Congress. The House Appropriations Committee receives about 35,000 earmark spending requests per year.
The Byrd-Obey plan for earmark reform
Recognizing that appropriations earmarking can serve very worthwhile purposes, Sen. Byrd and Rep. Obey first assured their fellow lawmakers that the process will be allowed in the future, starting with the FY2008 budget process, which starts in January 2007.
Byrd and Obey, however, hope to convince Congress to adopt a "reformed process" for earmarks intended to "bring transparency and openness to the budget process and to the use of earmarks." Under the Obey-Byrd plan, legislators sponsoring each earmark project would be publicly identified. In addition, the draft copies of all bills or amendments to bills proposing earmark spending would be made available to the public -- before any votes are taken -- at every stage of the legislative process, including committee consideration.
Backers of the Byrd-Obey reforms say the new process will help eliminate projects of dubious purpose, thus helping gain Congressional approval of truly beneficial and publicly-supportable projects.
A federal budget on-time, for a change?
As an additional benefit, Sen. Byrd and Rep. Obey hope their proposed reforms to the earmark process will increase the chances of Congress completing its work on the annual federal budget appropriations bills by the October 1 -- start of the government's fiscal year -- deadline, something that hasn't happened in a very long time. "The last time each of the appropriations bills were passed by Congress individually and on time was 1994 - the last time we both chaired the Appropriations Committees," stated Byrd and Obey. "That is the best way to govern and we are committed to that effort."