WASHINGTON – Partisan sniping over Congress' targeted spending escalated Monday as a House committee chairman threatened to kill all pet projects if Republican leaders "demagogue" the issue.
The chairman, Wisconsin Democrat David Obey, also said that his House Appropriations Committee will publicize proposed "earmarks" before House-Senate conferees resolve differences in the government's annual spending bills this fall. But Republicans said the offer falls far short of Democrats' January promise to disclose lawmakers' earmark requests before the bills reach the House floor, a process that begins this week.
The practice of placing earmarks in spending bills has expanded dramatically in recent years. Consequently, so has criticism of the sometimes questionable roads, museums, contracts and other projects that lawmakers seek for their districts.
When they assumed control of Congress in January, Democrats rewrote House rules to require that earmark requests -- and the people who make them -- be publicized while spending bills are being drafted and debated. But Obey earlier this month said such lists would not be available until the House had voted on the bills and readied them for a House-Senate committee for final negotiations.
Obey told reporters Monday that lawmakers have submitted more than 32,000 earmark requests this year. Many will be rejected immediately, he said, but his committee's staff needs time to investigate them. "I'm trying to deal with the reality of the situation," he added.
Obey offered a slightly different plan Monday. "Before the August recess," he said, his office intends to list "every earmark that the committee expects to try to include in a final conference product" with the Senate. Any lawmaker can "question or challenge" any request and, he said, the earmark's sponsor will be asked to respond.
"They'll be hanging out there for 30 days" of public scrutiny and comment while Congress is on its summer break, Obey said. "If the committee makes the wrong choice, it will pay a political price," he said.
Republicans said Democrats should keep their promise of publicizing earmark requests before spending bills reach the House floor. "Democrats are still making it easy to hide wasteful spending from the American people and making a mockery of their pledge to make the appropriations process more open and transparent," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
But Obey scoffed at the notion that any earmark, no matter how dubious its merit, has ever been dropped during a floor debate. That's because most members fear their project could be next, he said.
"The only real opportunity you have to prevent something stupid from happening is to have the protection of the staff, who knows the most about these programs and can flag something if they think it smells," Obey said. "And they need time to do it."
Saying Republicans indulge in earmarks as much as Democrats do, Obey warned GOP leaders to stop politicizing the subject.
Referring to Boehner and Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., the Appropriations Committee's top Republican, Obey told reporters: "If they think they can demagogue the earmarks process all the year long and expect Democrats to carry the burden of passing earmarks, they're wrong.... There will be no earmarks for anybody."
While some earmarks are unwarranted, Obey said, many are for worthy causes in districts whose representatives best know the local needs. Earmarks account for less than 2 percent of discretionary spending, he said.