Thursday, March 29, 2007

The federal agency that tracked pork-barrel spending during the 12 years of the Republican congressional majority has discontinued the practice since Democrats took power, riling lawmakers suspicious of the timing and concerned about the pace of fat being added to bills.

“To me, something doesn’t smell right,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. “I just hope no one is pressuring” the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

While not blaming the Democratic leadership, Mr. DeMint added: “I guess if you’re looking for a motive, you’d have to look in that direction.”

CRS, a nonpartisan agency of the Library of Congress created to conduct research for members of Congress on legislative issues, changed its policy in February — a month after Democrats took control of the Congress and vowed to curb the number of special-interest projects inserted into spending bills or even reports that don’t require a vote.

CRS Director Daniel P. Mulhollan developed the policy after consulting with “internal CRS appropriations experts” and deciding the service was redundant with what other agencies do, CRS spokeswoman Janine D’Addario said.

“His decision was strictly an internal decision,” said Miss D’Addario, whose agency began providing Congress members with information on earmarks in 1994, when Mr. Mulhollan took over as director.

CRS said the Office of Management and Budget recently has been taking on a greater role in monitoring earmarks. And with both chambers of Congress this year establishing new guidelines and clearer definitions of earmarks, the agency said its role as a scorekeeper of earmarks is obsolete.

Several lawmakers, particularly those who had come to rely on the agency to identify the dollar value of earmarks in appropriations and other laws, were caught off guard by the change.

“It’s troubling — I can’t think of any justification for that,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican. “They’ve done good research in the past. … That’s what they’re here for — the benefit of the members” of Congress.

Democratic leaders with the House and Senate appropriations committees say they did not persuade Mr. Mulhollan to drop his agency’s earmark practice.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, wasn’t aware of the research service’s change in policy until this week, spokesman Tom Gavin said.

“Senator Byrd is a strong supporter of CRS, and he in no way, shape or form tried to get them to change policy,” Mr. Gavin said.

Republicans said they want an independent observer because pork is often in the eye of the beholder and estimates of the amount vary widely.

Citizens Against Government Waste put the figure for 2006 at $29 billion, while Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee said it was $17 billion. Mr. DeMint, citing a CRS report, said the amount totaled more than $67 billion.

Mr. DeMint said no other agency or group has the resources, expertise and access to provide Congress with data on earmarks.

“This is really baffling that CRS would do this,” he said.

The Office of Management and Budget debuted a search engine on its Web site this year to track earmarks during fiscal 2005 and may expand the engine later. But the office has no plans to assume CRS’ former role of earmarks scorekeeper for Congress, OMB spokesman Sean Kevelighan said.

“I haven’t heard of any specific services that we’re offering for members” of Congress, Mr. Kevelighan said.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said he first became aware the agency no longer would be conducting earmark research for Congress when it rejected a request he recently submitted for earmark data.

The senator held a “heated but direct” meeting with Mr. Mulhollan last week to voice his concerns, said Coburn spokesman John Hart, who was at the meeting.

“Mr. Mulhollan denied receiving any outside pressure [for the change in policy], but the evidence suggests otherwise,” Mr. Hart said.

When Democrats took control of the 110th Congress in January, they promised to limit the long-standing and bipartisan practice of slipping pork spending into bills. But when the House last week passed a $124 billion emergency war-funding provision, the bill included as much as $20 billion in nonmilitary and pork-barrel spending, a move widely criticized by Republicans, including President Bush.

“This bill has too much pork, too many conditions and an artificial timetable for withdrawal,” the president said last week.

The emergency war-funding provision included $74 million for the peanut industry, $124 million for the shrimp industry and $25 million for spinach producers. The war-funding bill is proof an independent third-party observer like the Congressional Research Service is needed to keep track of earmarks, many in Congress say.

“I can tell you it’s very difficult to get this type of information from the [House] Appropriations Committee — very difficult,” Mr. Flake said.

Mr. DeMint and others say they’re not ready to let the issue die.

“We’re not going to let it go,” Mr. DeMint said. “And if they don’t eventually change their mind, then that would mean that something really is behind it.”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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