Curse of the midnight earmark

A principle as old as Congress is that once a bill is passed it is final. There are no do-overs or changes unless the full Congress votes them in a subsequent bill. But strange things do happen, and one of those is causing furor on Capitol Hill.

The 2005 highway bill contained an earmark — a lawmaker’s pet project — for $10 million to widen and improve I-75 in Ft. Myers, Fla. After the bill was passed by both the House and the Senate but before it went to the president, staffers for GOP Rep. Don Young, like his fellow Alaska lawmakers a master of the pork process, changed the earmark to fund an interchange on I-75. That would have materially benefited developers who had raised $40,000 for Young and who owned 4,000 acres next to the proposed interchange.

When the change came to light, many lawmakers were outraged. Thursday, by a bipartisan margin of 64 to 28, the Senate voted to ask for a federal criminal investigation into how the earmark was altered. If there was a precedent for the request, no one could immediately recall it.

Earmarks are not in and of themselves bad, but they tend to add up — over $18 billion last year and that was a down year; they escape normal legislative scrutiny; and they are prone to abuse as in this case. Young says he backed the interchange because of community support for the project but news accounts say the local county planning board is opposed to it and has rejected money for the interchange three times.

Clearly this bears investigation, but nothing is simple in Congress. Young is a House member and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sees the Senate vote as an unconstitutional intrusion on her turf. The House leadership believes it’s a matter for the House ethics committee, but anti-earmark crusader Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., says he’s been asking the committee for a year to investigate with no results.

Meanwhile, the earmark was returned to its original language in a technical corrections bill passed earlier by the House and this week, 88 to 2 by the Senate. The investigation may or may not go anywhere since the lawmakers have a lot of other things to occupy them. And the earmarks? They’ll survive, and quite likely strange things will continue to happen.