I has been great sport watching Congress pretend to reform itself over the “earmarks” (pork) it adds to spending bills. Riding into power on a wave of promised reform, the Democrats imposed new rules that changed almost nothing, and since then, they have gone to considerable lengths to get around their own rules, feeble as they are. The Republicans, whose past accomplishment was to increase pork to unprecedented levels, now gleefully ape reform by badgering the Democrats into observing their own rules.
Promising “the most ethical Congress ever,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) chose to deliver by requiring spending bills to list and explain earmarks. The new system flunked on its first try. In the House Appropriations Committee’s initial spending bill — legislation to finish the Republicans’ undone work for the previous fiscal year — new Chairman David Obey (Wis.) relieved his colleagues of the trouble of describing their own earmarks by pretending there were none in the bill. Actually, there were over $200 million of them. In the next appropriations bill, to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obey again asserted there were no earmarks; this time there were even more.
On his third try, Obey took a new tack: When the Homeland Security Appropriations bill, H.R. 2643, was reported by his committee, it truly had no earmarks. Obey explained that they would be inserted into the bill only in its final stages, after the House and Senate had passed their versions, and it was to be sent back to both bodies for final approval. Thus, only when the bill was virtually on its way to the White House would Obey permit the press and quarrelsome members of Congress to see what earmarks the Democratic majority had chosen.
The Republicans had a field day. Feigning passion for the original Pelosi reforms, and with all the sincerity of a professional wrestler, House Republican leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), imposed legislative gridlock on the Homeland Security bill with piles of Republican amendments and motions to accomplish noble ends, such as changing the grammar in the bill. Once it became clear that the Republicans could do to the Democrats what the Democrats had done to the Republicans in the previous Congress — hogtie most spending bills to embarrass the party in control — Obey caved. He agreed to go back to the original plan: to list and explain earmarks in bills — sort of.
Just how open and honest the reformed process is can be seen in the new Department of Defense authorization bill that came out of the House Armed Services Committee in May. It did list 449 earmarks — in small, unreadable print — costing $7.6 billion, but the list was incomplete. An astute watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, found 53 additional, unlisted earmarks costing $744 million.
When the Senate Armed Services Committee reported out its different version of the bill, S. 1547, it listed 309 earmarks costing $5.6 billion. When it comes up for debate in the Senate, 200 or more amendments will be introduced. About half of those amendments will be for home-state projects that for some reason the committee did not add during its initial review process.
During the week or two the Senate will take to consider the bill, there will be debates, some of them interesting, on the great issues of the day: the war in Iraq, nuclear nonproliferation, the worn-out U.S. Army and more. Interspersed through those debates will be strange presentations by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.) and the ranking Republican, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). They will be reading off procedural motions, calling up amendments and passing them by “unanimous consent”; they will do this time after time, sometimes passing as many as 20 amendments in one sequence. The amendments will not be debated; they may not even be described.
There’s a reason why these items will receive such little scrutiny: They are the pork amendments. The senators pressing them will have “cleared” them with Levin and McCain. Then the amendments will go through the arcane but well-oiled approval process, with utterly no debate — all in what calls itself the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”
This year, there may be some new twists, none of them having the slightest thing to do with the Democrats’ reforms. First, it should be fun to watch McCain, the presidential candidate and self-described “pork buster,” integrate himself openly into the pork approval process. To avoid painfully obvious hypocrisy, he will surely absent himself, likely conveniently out of town on the campaign trail, and will ask a colleague to stand in for him.
Still, while McCain in past years has done nothing to impede pork in Armed Services Committee bills, this year he may have an irresistible urge to take action. It turns out that one of the top porkers in the committee’s bill is none other than a Democratic presidential rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). Last year, she jammed 26 earmarks into the bill, costing $47.8 million. Will McCain call out Clinton on her pork, seeking debate and votes? It will be fascinating to watch. If McCain fails to act, it will tell us as much about his character as it would if he does.
There may yet be some interventions in the congressional pork fest. In the recent past, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has challenged some of the more egregious pork in spending bills. In the Defense authorization bill, he will have a target-rich environment. He may be one of the few senators — or perhaps the only one — to oppose any earmarks. However, he does this only intermittently, and his actions are unlikely to be comprehensive.
McCain or Coburn or any other challenger will almost certainly lose if the matter comes to a vote. Pork is a bipartisan enterprise, and any threat to any member’s pork is a threat to all. The Senate’s porkers — the vast majority of both parties — will surely band together to beat back any threat, as they have many times in the past.
The Democrats’ pork reforms are about as helpful as changing the light bulbs in a bordello. Seen in isolation, the action may seem rational, even needed, but in the larger scheme of things, the illumination does nothing to change the business going on.
WINSLOW T. WHEELER is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and author of The Wastrels of Defense. Over 31 years, he worked for US Senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues.
This article originally appeared in the June 26 issue of Politico.