There was supposed to be earmark reform in Congress. But once again, big changes inside the beltway don't look so big to the rest of us.
"Earmark" is the term Congress uses for what most people call "pork." The "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska -- that was an earmark. The money issued to study the genome of a catfish -- that's an earmark too. Earmarks are a kind of hidden treasure, buried deep in appropriations bills, with little or no explanation and, of course, no name attached to which member of Congress asked for them.
On a recent dig for hidden treasure in federal legislation, we found $500,000 helping to remodel the top of a ski lift in Alaska. We found $96,000 of your federal taxes helping to remodel the historic Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida. And up in little Rice Lake, Wisconsin, we found a tiny airport that got $2 million to lengthen a runway so a few corporate jets could land. (There are no commercial flights at Rice Lake)
Now, we have a new Congress and a new cause -- earmark reform. To me and, I think, most Americans earmark reform would mean cutting earmarks entirely or at least limiting this pork-barrel spending. But that's apparently not what the Democratic leaders had in mind.
The reform is this: In the past, these spending requests remained secret until they were voted on, and no one ever had to attach his or her name to the request. Now, the House appropriations staff tell us, the spending requests will still remain secret, but only until the full House takes a final vote on the spending bill. Then, all the requesting Congressmen's names will be made public.
Who gets what earmarks will still be decided behind closed doors and critics, including the National Taxpayers Union and Americans for Prosperity, say by the time the public knows the name the deal will already have been done.
In other words, they're not going to cut the pork, they're just going tell us who wanted it after it's all approved.
That is what's being called the most "transparent" earmark system ever. Who called it that? The new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Wisconsin Rep. Dave Obey (D).
Yep, the same guy who got the Rice Lake airport lengthened for some corporate executives and their jets. Of course, Obey doesn't see it quite that way.
"My only apology," he wrote to us in an e-mail, "is that I can't do more for Wisconsin."
--By Drew Griffin, CNN Correspondent