Speaking on the Senate floor on Wednesday evening, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) got under the fingernails of the government watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which has been a leading producer in the cottage industry of earmark outrage the last several weeks.
"I wish to remind my colleagues of the many reforms this Congress has imposed on the earmarking process," said Reid. "The days of unlimited and unaccountable congressionally-directed spending are gone. Those days are behind us. We passed the most sweeping ethics and lobbying reform in the history of the country -- and rightfully so. We have never gone beyond that."
He went on to cite a 43 percent reduction in the overall volume of earmarks and another five percent reduction in the current omnibus spending bill. "The volume of earmarks is less than half what they were in 2006 when our Republican colleagues were in the majority," Reid said. "Just as important, under our reforms, each and every congressionally-directed spending earmark in this bill is fully disclosed and transparent to the public. What does that mean? Each of these is backed by a letter from a House or Senate sponsor certifying that they and their family members have absolutely no financial interest in the earmark."
That's when TCS's Steve Ellis had had enough, lobbing an e-mail to the Huffington Post to say that "Reid vigorously opposed those exact reforms on the floor and surreptitiously gutted key transparency provisions months after the Senate adopted them 98-0. Ironically, he just referred to the fact that House and Senate members submitted disclosure letters on earmarks, without noting that the House provides far more information than the Senate does on earmarks because of the gutting behind closed doors."
Reid's office, too, has had enough. "Steve Ellis is a partisan hack," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. "TCS does not want earmark transparency. No transparency measures will ever be good enough for TCS because they want to kill earmarks."
Manley wondered, "Is this so called good government more interested in making fundraising appeals to their base or dealing in facts?"
"After years of inaction in prior Congresses as earmarks exploded, when we took over the majority we implemented the most sweeping transparency and accountability reforms ever," said Manley. "S. 1 was the most sweeping ethics and earmarks reform in history. And this year, the Appropriations Committee chairs in both the House and the Senate went out of their way to voluntarily bring that transparency to a new level."
Ellis points to the differing levels of earmark disclosure in the House and Senate to make the case that the Senate didn't go far enough. (The staunchest defenders of earmarks and congressional tradition are generally in the Senate.)
Ellis cites a letter from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as an example of openness. It indicates exactly where an earmark will be spent, on whom and for what purpose. He cites a letter from Reid as an instance of less than full disclosure. Reid's letter affirms that none of the earmarks he requested benefit him financially in any way, but it doesn't indicate what specific projects are being funded.
The animosity reflects rising tensions in the battle over earmarks. Part of it is ideological, as conservatives see attacking earmarks as a way to attack spending in general. It's also partly a power struggle between the executive and legislative branches over who has the power to direct spending. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to appropriate funds, and defenders of earmarks see the onslaught as an attack on Congress itself.
"We are far, far from partisan hacks. We were critical of the explosion of earmarks under the Republican Congress. We take our nonpartisanship extremely seriously," said Ellis. He complimented the reform, but said it didn't go far enough. "[Reid] is sort of obfuscating the point."