As the stock market plunged nearly 1,000 points in two days this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was preoccupied with protecting billions of dollars, worth of earmarks contained in a separate, unpublished committee report that got a one-sentence reference in a giant $612 billion defense bill.
Reid engineered the 61-32 vote to limit debate on the bill, thus barring consideration of an amendment offered by Sen. Jim DeMint.
The South Carolina Republican’s amendment would have deleted the reference to the committee report so that it would have to be considered separately.
By leaving the language in the bill, the lawmakers were able to carry out one of their favorite maneuvers: incorporating committee reports into omnibus bills so they can give billions of tax dollars to their cronies without recorded votes on specific spending measures. This is the same Harry Reid who, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, promised to “drain the swamp” of Republican corruption if voters would return the Democrats to the majority.
But Reid’s move was not just a slap at DeMint. Under pressure from a bipartisan coalition of fiscal watchdog groups, including Porkbusters, Club for Growth, Citizens Against Government Waste, National Taxpayers Union and Taxpayers for Common Sense, President George W. Bush signed an executive order last January that directed federal agencies to ignore earmarks that only appear in committee reports.
If DeMint’s proposal had passed, the earmarks in the defense bill’s committee report would have been merely suggestions — not legally binding spending instructions. No wonder Reid made sure the South Carolinian’s amendment never made it to the Senate floor.
A task force created by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recommends that all earmarks and their congressional sponsors be included explicitly in spending bills, so they can be honestly debated and voted upon by the House and Senate, as the Constitution requires. This would give members of Congress sufficient leeway to direct public funds to worthy projects in their home districts, while making the lawmakers accountable to taxpayers.
It is significant that Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., who opposed the DeMint amendment, admitted that it would have created “a huge shift in the power of the purse.” He’s right about that. But a shift from shady legislative maneuvers like Reid’s to full public disclosure and accountability is exactly the kind of change most needed on Capitol Hill. Voters are still waiting for that swamp to be drained.