In one of their first actions as the majority party in the 110th Congress, Democrats are setting new requirements for “earmarks,” bill provisions that specify money or tax breaks for targeted purposes. The House’s new leaders  already have pushed through a rule mandating more disclosure about earmarks, and the Senate probably will do the same. The number of such provisions may well decline, at least for a while, but the practice won’t vanish. The debate is of keen interest to the construction industry, because many earmarks fund highways, river locks and dams, federal buildings and other infrastructure projects.

Under a rule passed Jan. 5, House spending and other bills must list “congressional earmarks, limited tax benefits and limited tariff benefits,” as well as the names of lawmakers who are sponsoring the provisions. Sponsors must certify they have “no financial interest” in listed earmarks. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced a similar plan. Demo-crats also have barred earmarks from remaining 2007 appropriations.

New Requirements
House Rule (approved Jan. 5)

Applies to targeted spending, "limited tax benefits and limited tariff provisions."
Congressional sponsors of earmarks will be identified.
Lawmakers must certify they won't benefit financially from earmarks.
Senate Rule (introduced Jan. 4, still pending)

Applies to budget, loan or contract authority, "other expenditures," plus "tax expenditures or other revenue items."
Earmark sponsors identified, purpose of provision stated.
Sources: House Resolution 6, Senate Bill 1 

The House moves are “a significant step forward,” says David Williams, Citizens Against Government Waste vice president for policy. But he says “more needs to be done to ensure that if an earmark does appear [in a bill], it doesn’t take the strength of a thousand men to yank it out.”

President Bush said on Jan. 3 that Congress should “cut the number and cost of earmarks next year by at least half.” Like his predecessors, however, he hasn’t shied away from specifying aid for projects in his annual budgets. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) says earmarks “will be reduced, not eliminated.” Letting the President determine spending by himself would undercut power the Constitution gives to Congress, he says.

Industry officials back the effort. “I think government in the sunshine’s a good thing,” says Pam Whitted, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association vice president for government affairs. Past earmarks were by no means secrets. The 2005 SAFETEA-LU law spelled out many projects’ cities, state and route numbers. “There was no hiding who was asking for the earmarks,” says Cathy Connor, Parsons Brinckerhoff senior vice president for government affairs.

One industry source sees the changes as more form than substance, but says they "may have an impact on the margin to make it harder to include [earmarks] that really are of questionable merit." "The issue is, how long does that last?" PB's Connor says. "Is that one appropriations cycle…two appropriations cycles? The question is, are the Democrats going to hold people's feet to the fire?"