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Thursday, November 17, 2005

It's a Miracle! House, Senate Adopt Spending Bills With No Earmarks. Or Is It Just More of The D.C. Two-Step?

OK, maybe miracle is a stretch but something rare and needed has occurred on Capitol Hill in the past day. Senate and House negotiators agreed last night on a 2006 $142 billion Labor-HHS-Education Appropriation bill that has no earmarks, or pork barrel projects.

Is that progress? Well, the 2005 Labor-HHS-Education Appropriation bill contained nearly a billion dollars worth of pork.

Is there a dark lining in this silver cloud? Could be because Washington politicians in both parties long ago perfected the art of appearing to be doing one thing while actually doing something entirely different.

In this case, it is possible pork barrel projects that would have otherwise ended up in the bill may yet appear in other legislation. There are no emergency funds in the bill for combating a potential avian flu outbreak, for example, and Congressional Quarterly (available subscription only) reports talk that some pork could show up in an separate bill addressing the flu issue.

Aha, that's the D.C. Two-Step: First, the politicos point to the pork-free Labor-HHS-Education Appropriation bill and proclaim it as proof they heard and responded positively to the public uproar over excessive pork barrelling in Congress.

Step two comes later with approval of other bills containing the pork that would otherwise have been in the bill. The hope is people have short memories and won't realize step one was just smoke and mirrors.

More evidence of the D.C. Two-Step in action is provided by Roland Foster, a key aide to Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK. Remember the Coburn amendment reported here last week as a small victory because it capped how many federal bureaucrats could attend an overseas conference simultaneously?

House and Senate negotiators dropped the Coburn amendment, according to Foster, who emails these details:

"The Labor-HHS-Education Conference Report (109-300) strips a provision contained in the Senate passed version of the bill to reduce travel and conference expenses of bureaucrats at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by $15 million in 2006.
"HHS estimates that it spent $68,487,604 on conferences in 2005. This is a nearly 50 percent increase over the $46.7 million spent in fiscal year 2000.
"According to the American Institute of Preventative Medicine, the average doctor visit costs $55. The $15 million savings that would have resulted from a reduction in bureaucrat travel and conferencing costs could have paid for nearly 273,000 doctors visits in the next year.
"The 2004 Census Bureau report on Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance in the United States shows that 45 million Americans are without health insurance. The annual premium that a health insurer charges an employer for a health plan covering a family of four averaged $9,950 in 2004. For single coverage is $3,695 annual average premium.

"The $15 million that would have resulted from this reduction in bureaucrat travel and conferences could have provide 1,500 American families of four or 4,060 single Americans with health insurance for a year.
"HHS conference report language:
"The conference agreement does not include a general provision proposed by the Senate reducing the appropriations for travel, conference programs and related expenses for the Department of Health and Human Services. The House did not include a similar provision."

What does this tell us? Washington politicos have to be watched like hawks all the time. That is why the Porkbusters campaign is only the first step towards the second great achievement of the Blogosphere - forcing the same transparency and accountability on government that is already being forced on the mainstream media.

UPDATE: Uh-oh!

It appears the House has voted against adopting the conference report on the earmark-less Labor-HHS-Education Appropriation bill 209-224. That's the GOP-led House. More details to come. For now, here's who voted how on the rollcall.

On the GOP side, 209 voted for the conference report, 22 voted with 201 Democrats and Bernie Sanders against the report. Not a single Democrat voted for the report. Looks like "GOP-led House" is a thing of the past. This is the reverse of the 1960s when coalitions of Republicans and conservative Democrats were a major road block to liberal proposals for more government programs.

UPDATE II: Rep. Flake Smells Pork

This is yet another illustration of why this town never surprises me. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-AZ, says that Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill actually does have lots of pork in it. Andy Roth at Club for Growth posts the congressman's warning: "Never, never, ever trust appropriators" here.

UPDATE III: Townhall.com's Tim Chapman At Senate Blog Event

Sen. John Thune, R-SD, tells Chapman "we are told that the earmarks have been stripped out. I know there are a lot of unhappy members in the Senate who did not get their projects. Whether it is completely free of earmarks, only the appropriators know for sure."

Keep scrolling with Tim as he is querying the parade of senators coming to the Senate's first-ever blog conference. I was scheduled to attend as well, but "stuff" came up. No matter as Chapman is doing a fine job.

UPDATE IV: Murkowski's White Flag on Bridge to Nowhere

If you are still wondering whatever happenned to that promised PDF of the Ketchikan Daily News story in which Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski appeared to be waving a white flag, well wonder no more because here it is, finally.