Published January 13, 2015
Republicans' efforts to portray themselves as the more responsible of the two parties when it comes to pork projects may have their cover blown if lawmakers follow the example of Illinois Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel.
Emanuel has voluntarily revealed all his earmark requests for the 2008 fiscal year budget. Saying he wants to make "a personal effort to bring more transparency and accountability to the earmark process," he has listed 24 local education, transportation, health care and cultural projects for his Chicago district. The sum of the projects for which he is requesting funding is $174.45 million.
"I have never opposed the ability of members of Congress to direct federal funds to vital programs and projects," said Emanuel, who is chairman of the Democratic caucus. "But the taxpayers deserve to know where their dollars are being spent and that no hidden agendas are being served.
"I am pleased to stand behind each and every one of these requests, which will help people and communities across our region," Emanuel said.
But Emanuel's example may not lead to more revelations.
After a weeks long battle in the House over the when lawmakers must disclose their requests for earmarks — home district pet projects also known as pork — the parties emerged with a deal that would require lawmakers to identify themselves as the sponsor of an earmark when the 13 annual appropriations bills come up for debate on the House floor.
The change came after Democrats had proposed "air-dropping" the earmarks into conference committee reports that take place after the House and Senate pass their versions of the spending bills and negotiators sit down to reconcile the differences. Conference reports can't be amended.
According to the plan, the earmarks will be held until all the other amendments on each of the spending bills are completed and then a copy of all the requests will be put out for all to see.
But with more than 32,000 earmark requests on the table, lawmakers are likely to pull out for debate only the ones they find most objectionable. The rest will likely be approved by a suspension of the rules that allows passage en masse unless an objection is made on the House floor.
"This is an important victory — for taxpayers who will now be able to see the wasteful spending the majority was trying to hide, and for lawmakers who can challenge this spending on the House floor," said House Minority Leader John Boehner.
"These new rules are a vast improvement over the past treatment of earmarks, which hid their sponsorship and any connection to special interest groups who would benefit," Emanuel said.
The new rules for disclosure may not jeopardize many of the most desirable pet projects, however, as evidenced by the House Appropriations Committee's approval Thursday of 337 earmarks totaling $153 million. Still after all the attention paid, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., reportedly have issued an edict cutting in half the amount of money devoted to earmarks.
One budget watchdog group said it is pleased with the new set of rules.
"I think we'll be able to identify the really egregious ones really quickly and we can bring it to the attention of the public," said Alexa Moutevelis, media associate for Citizens Against Government Waste.
As part of their ongoing efforts to root out pork in the annual budgets, for years CAGW has been asking lawmakers to disclose their earmark requests. This year, they sent out their annual plea, and so far they have gotten 80 refusals to participate.
About 44 lawmakers have agreed to reveal their requests, and their disclosures are available on the CAGW Web site.
Moutevelis said typically, in any given year, fewer than 10 lawmakers do not request any earmarks. Included on that list this year are all Republicans — House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, and Reps. Jeff Flake and John Shadegg of Arizona, Vito Fossella of New York, Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Lee Terry, R-Neb.
Boehner, who last week announced the deal on disclosures with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Obey said he had not asked his caucus to disclose all their earmark requests on their Web sites, in part because Obey has all the details at his fingertips and can offer them if he wants.
"He has all of the earmarks. He ought to disclose them," Boehner said. But the minority leader also noted that part of the problem with disclosures is that lawmakers occasionally do not request certain earmarks requested of them, and that can get them in trouble with constituents back home.
"You know, apparently a lot of these members get a lot of requests for all kinds of projects in their districts. And they submit some of them, and apparently some of them they don't submit. And I think the bigger problem is the ones that they don't submit on behalf of their constituents," he said.
Boehner added that he's not so impressed with Emanuel's decision to disclose his list.
"Rahm Emanuel is trying to put lipstick on a pig after they got their hands caught in the cookie jar last week. And so he started this effort to try to force members individually. And it was interesting that he didn't ask any of his leaders to disclose their earmarks," he said.
But Moutevelis said any effort to be more transparent is welcome, especially when lawmakers proudly boast about how much of the federal bacon they are bringing home.
"They are supposed to be working for the whole country. It's not fair for the people in Nebraska to be paying for a road in New York," she said, adding that most of the money awarded is not based on merit but on the lawmaker's rank and status.
"It's just based on position and political connection and we just feel that Congress should be (looking out) for the whole country and whatever's left, they should be giving back to the taxpayers because we know how to use that money," she added. "They need to know the value of the dollar."
According to CAGW, last year's appropriations included 2,658 projects at a cost of $13.2 billion. That's a significant decrease from the 9,963 projects worth $29 billion that lawmakers passed the previous year.
The reason for the decline? The Republican-led Congress didn't finish passing its annual spending bills before the November 2006 midterm election, and a giant omnibus package that contained a moratorium on earmarks was pushed through at the beginning of the 110th Congress.
Following is the list of Emanuel's complete earmark requests for fiscal year 2008:
— Academy for Urban School Leadership — Chicago Academy and Chicago Academy High School — $800,000
— Art Institute of Chicago — $1.5 million.
— Chicago Park District's Lane Technical College Preparatory High School Field — $700,000.
— Chicago Park District's Theater on the Lake — $1 million.
— Chicago Police Department Citizen and Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting (CLEAR) — $1 million.
— Chicago Public School's John C. Coonley Elementary School —$250,000.
— Chicago Public Schools After School Counts Programs — $1 million.
— Chicago Public Schools Keep Kids Learning Program — $1.4 million.
— Chicago's Children's Museum's Community Health and Wellness Initiative — $300,000.
— Chicago Transit Authority Brown Line — $40 million.
— Chicago Transit Authority Circle Line — $75 million.
— Children's Memorial Hospital Intensive Care Unit Facilities Project — $1.5 million.
— DePaul University's Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Center — $1.5 million.
— Fort Detrick's Research on Preventing Epilepsy after Traumatic Brain Injury — $2.5 million.
— Franklin Park Law Enforcement Strategic Technology Program — $1 million.
— Illinois Institute of Technology's Energy and Sustainability Institute — $2 million.
— Illinois Masonic Medical Center Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Renovation — $1 million.
— John G. Shedd Aquarium — $1 million.
— Lincoln/Belmont/Ashland Avenues Streetscaping Project — $3 million.
— Lincoln Park Zoo's South Pond Redevelopment — $3 million.
— Metra Commuter Rail System Expansions and Upgrades to Union Pacific Northwest Line — $25 million.
— Milwaukee Avenue Reconstruction Project — $3 million.
— Swedish Covenant Hospital — $2.5 million.
— U.S. Geological Survey — $4.5 million.
FOX News' Jim Mills contributed to this report.