By John M. Donnelly
Earmarks are no longer allowed on Capitol Hill, at least in the narrow sense of noncompetitive spending directed at a particular entity at the behest of at least one lawmaker.
But other ways of ensuring that parochial interests are served in Congress are coming into their own.
With earmarks banned, Washington lobbying has shifted more to the executive branch, where the goal is to try to ensure one’s project is included in the president’s budget request. That obviates the need for Congress to do anything harder than say, “Sure.”
Shaping the administration’s request in this way is done through “phone marking” and “letter marking” — communications designed to influence what makes the budget cut.
Another method is spotlighted in the Washington Post this morning: securing legislation requiring that the administration brief lawmakers (or file a report) on a particular system or mission.
The goal of such provisions appears to be to exert pressure on those shaping the budget request by letting the executive branch officials know that powerful people have an interest in ensuring that a particular technology at least gets a hearing. Another objective may be to “educate” them about that solution, in the hope that they decide themselves that it’s worthwhile. A third outcome could be that the lawmakers receiving the briefing can glean from the administration officials information about their purchasing plans and priorities. Lastly, the members are able to get credit back home for going to bat for a local company, university or nonprofit group.
The example in today’s paper was a House Armed Services Committee directive that the Army secretary brief members on “lightweight carbon fiber composite ladders.” But the fiscal watchdog group called Taxpayers for Common Sense has compiled a list of 14 other reporting requirements, which it calls “precursor earmarks.” The 14 on the list were part of en bloc amendments adopted during the bill’s May 7 committee markup, and the lawmaker who backed the provision is known in each case.
One or two of these proposed mandates sound like legitimate oversight of matters of relatively broad concern, such as a request for a briefing on the modernization of Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopters. Most of the others, by contrast, sound as if they are the focus of a more limited audience — maybe even just one or two company’s interests. In the latter category, perhaps, fall mandates for briefings on: a vaccine for equine encephalitis, flame resistant technologies, tactical generators and advanced fuel systems for nuclear propulsion.
The orders for documents or briefings are often accompanied by report language strongly suggesting the best product that can be purchased to satisfy a particular military need.
“They basically say, ‘Here’s the right answer, go do it,’” Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said in a phone interview.
Of course, earmarks still exist, if to a lesser degree, in the form of “committee adds” — increases to the budget request that the committee as a whole endorses. And a briefing this year could lead to a committee add next year–that is, if the money isn’t already a part of next year’s budget request thanks to all the educating that has gone on.